Australian opera singer Nellie Melba
Original Published Date: 
Monday, April 19, 2021

Full article issued by The University of New South Wales (UNSW).

ARC Discovery Projects grant recipient, Professor Kathy Bowrey, a legal and cultural historian at UNSW, has been examining the role of copyright law in the development of Australian culture, and the extent to which it serves the mutual interests of Australian creators and media owners. As a form of intellectual property, copyright law influences our daily lives in the way we enjoy stories, film and music – how we know about them, how we get access to them, and who we associate them with. 

'In reading the media you might think that copyright is all about corporate control. It is of course, but the most important forms of control are the ones that we don’t really see,' says Professor Bowrey.

'Intellectual property and copyright are really about people, about how they understand the value of their creativity and how they use business relationships and systems to control their works and connect with audiences.'

 'Copyright shouldn’t be measured simply in terms of royalties received. What is more important is building relationships that can sustain a career.'

Professor Bowrey has been looking at the experiences of a range of people who lived and created during the early period of intellectual property development, and at different opportunities that were created by knowing the market, the technology, the distribution opportunities and by knowing the right people with connections.

An example is Australian icon Dame Nellie Melba, an operatic soprano from the early 20th century who defied the status quo and risked her reputation by recording 'canned music' during a time when the gramophone was not considered serious music.

Drawing similarities to the #MeToo movement today, Melba was a woman at the top of her profession but who was exploited by the executives of The Gramophone Company and undermined by her partner, C. Haddon Chambers, an Australian-born playwright.

'The Gramophone Company colluded with Chambers and arranged for him to receive an illegal fee on every record she sold, in exchange for him pressuring her to release her recordings.

'I found this manipulation and exploitation of women so infuriating. Leveraging her publicity and image to sell recordings to a female audience, was there from the very start.

'Contemporary artists need to think more carefully about exploitation and distribution. What it is that they actually have to sell and what is the commodity,' Professor Bowrey says.

Photo credit: 

Dame Nellie Melba. Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain).