Australiaís Copyright Agency Limited [CAL] distributed $23.5m. in the financial year 2000-01. This sum should have been enough to keep all Australian authors in frugal comfort. It doesnít. Indeed, one danger from CALís boasting about its $23.5m. pay-out is that politicians and the public may conclude that writers no longer need grants from the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.

Only a handful of Australian writers have ever lived off royalties from the sale of books. The usual contract brings ten per cent of the shop price. Sales of 5,000 are considered high. If the cover price is $40, gross earnings for at least a yearís fulltime effort will be $20,000, minus costs of creation.

Hence, though the mean for an annual CAL cheque is only $300 or so dollars, that amount is a weekís income for many fulltime authors.

Since the 1960s, the prime threat to authorsí incomes has not been from pirated editions but photocopied pages, principally for use in classrooms once it became easy to run off thirty or 300 copies of a poem or a chapter. The volume in the library from which the copies were made was the only one that earned royalties. During the 1970s, Judith Wrightís royalties were more than halved by the photocopier. CAL estimates that over a billion pages are now copied each year.

The hope among authors that copyright payments would redress this loss of income has not been met. CAL paid book authors only $616, 167. So where did the other $23m. end up?

A CAL newsletter went some way to an answer but was coy about three concerns: one, the imbalance between receipts to authors and to their publishers; two, the percentage passed overseas; and three, CALís own take.

On the first point, the raw figures show that authors got 8 per cent and book publishers 48 per cent. The assumption is that publishers will pass on a share to their authors. The arguments that CAL advances to support its faith that such transfers take place are nothing if not inventive. Authors are supposed to prefer this round-about method for tax minimisation, or for its administrative ease. This explanation sits uneasily with CALís promise to develop methods for tracking those looked-for allocations. The inquiry is a belated attempt to deflect authorsí complaints that not all publishers are splitting their payments.

Meanwhile, the $10m. pay-out to book publishers has not increased average royalty rates or advances. Nor has it put books back into print. On the contrary, if a publisher can get a government cheque in the mail from mass photocopying, why incur the costs of reproduction and distribution?

Secondly, CAL sends $4. 3m., 19 per cent of its total payout, to collecting societies abroad. Those overseas agencies collect one-tenth of that amount on behalf of Australians. Hence, CAL spends as much calculating the debt to foreigners as it receives from equivalent agencies abroad. Is this another case of Australia playing the good trader while Europe and the US reap the benefits?

Thirdly, CALís September newsletter did not break down its own revenues. CAL stresses that it is a not-for-profit organisation. What its public relations material does not highlight is that, like all administrators, it extracts a fee of $4m. from its members. For instance, these expenses include overseas trips to negotiate with foreign collecting agencies.

CAL begins to looks like another make-work scheme for lawyers, none of whom would work there for the average authorís income. To add insult to injury, the Agency was wont to invite authors to seminars at $60 a pop to hear why we are not getting ripped off.

In reply, CAL will point out that its bureaucratic rent is essential to calculating, collecting and distributing the pay-outs. That is true under the complicated system that applies. It is not in the interest of CAL, or of copyright lawyers in private practice, to simplify those procedures.

Copyright payments are allocated at a fraction of a cent for every page of each individualís work that gets copied, according to a sample, but with plenty of exemptions for libraries and education. One alternative would be to exact a smaller fee on every photocopied page before pooling that sum to fund writers and publishers.

Whereas copyright law treats the expression of ideas as an individual possession, writing is part of a greater conversation. None of us invents ideas or their expression out of nothing. To treat creativity as property, like sheep or bricks, reinforces the mentality that impoverishes writers by devaluing memory and imagination.