To Beijing, a place usually associated with smog and mystery. But after a suffocating European summer, this year’s Beijing International Book Fair provided a breath of fresh air. For after the Brexit vote and the ruthless turmoil that accompanied it came an opportunity to get back to what we do best, namely sell rights, strike deals and make friends.
This year, UK publishing was accompanied on the plane by the new minister for business, energy and industrial strategy, Baroness Neville-Rolfe. The minister and her excellent team threw themselves into a range of meetings, speeches and conferences, all designed to support British intellectual property (IP) businesses in this complex market. As I watched this heartening sight unfold, I was reminded once again of the two pillars on which the international author and publisher community stand. The first is the freedom to publish our ideas, creations and stories. The second is copyright, a moment of 18th-century parliamentary genius that we now take for granted. Without it, how would the intangible become tangible? And even if authors still wrote, how would they be published or paid?
What has all of this got to do with Brexit? Well, so far as freedom to publish is concerned, perhaps not much. As the evolving approach to digital publishing and censorship in China reminded us, the challenge comes not so much from the EU, but from regimes who see freedom to publish only as the ugly half-sister of freedom of speech.
But copyright is a different story. An international publishing industry can only function in those markets and territories that broadly play by the same rules. That means countries adopting aligned copyright systems that not only protect their own citizens, but crucially provide the same recognition to works written by foreign nationals.