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O'Donnell, Gustaf Charles (1912–1989)

by Robert Pullan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Gustaf Charles O’Donnell (1912-1989), founder of the Copyright Agency Limited, was born on 17 August 1912 at Leksand, Sweden, eldest of eight children of Charles Joseph O’Donnell, wheat-farmer, and his wife Hylda Marea Sophia Australia, née Adelskold, schoolteacher. His mother was in Sweden visiting relatives and returned to Victoria when Gus was three months old. His father’s family was Irish. Raised a Catholic, Gus was educated at Kerang High School and became an avid reader. After his father’s death (1929), he managed the farm until the family left it in the mid-1930s. In 1937 he went to Salamaua, Mandated Territory of New Guinea, as a cadet patrol officer. He married Leonie Luise Stratmann (d.1971), a stenographer, on 22 November 1941 at St John’s Church of England, Darlinghurst.

Enlisting in the Citizen Military Forces on 28 January 1942, O’Donnell was commissioned in March. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in March 1943. Seeing himself ironically as a ‘shanghaied’ soldier with the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, he made perilous long-range reconnaissance patrols in the Central Highlands (1943) and the Aitape-Wewak area (1944-45) and won the Military Cross for ‘initiative and courage’. In March 1946 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

After lecturing at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney for two years, O’Donnell returned to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea as an assistant district officer. Back in Sydney in 1952, he joined the Australian Labor Party, served as president of the Woollahra branch and unsuccessfully sought preselection twice for the Federal seat of East Sydney.

A clerk (1952-58) with the Consumers Ammonia Co. Pty Ltd, from 1958 O’Donnell worked in the Commonwealth departments of National Development and Housing; but he believed that writing defined him. He entered Time Expired, a novel based on his Papua-New Guinea experience, in the Adelaide Advertiser literary competition in 1964; it won second prize. His company, Leksand Press, published the book in 1967. He was elected to the committee of management of the Australian Society of Authors in 1966 and served as chairman in 1969-75. Turning the writer’s property of copyright into an income became his obsession. In 1968 he founded the Australian Copyright Council to give legal advice to authors, agents and publishers.

Following the council’s interest in testing responsibility for photocopying machines, the High Court of Australia in University of New South Wales v. Moorhouse (1975) found that the university, by providing photocopying machines in the library, had authorised copyright breaches. O’Donnell estimated that this ‘great brain robbery’ was filching around $300 000 a year from writers. The compulsory licensing scheme, recommended by Justice Robert Franki in 1976 in his photocopying inquiry report, became part of the Copyright Amendment Act 1980. The Copyright Agency Ltd, which had been created in 1974 with Gus O’Donnell as chairman, was ready to collect and distribute the statutory fees. He feared that publishers would take over the scheme. When the four publisher-directors resigned in 1982, Frank Moorhouse, president of the Australian Society of Authors, attempting to resolve the impasse, asked O’Donnell to resign as CAL chairman and managing director, which he did.

O’Donnell married Deirdre May Hill, neé Curtis, executive secretary of ASA, on 14 June 1975 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney. He wrote A Bunyip on Little Mountain (1979), a children’s book. In 1989 CAL paid $1.1 million to authors and publishers and made an award recognising the ‘unique service to Australian copyright’ of O’Donnell, the man who wore a bush hat in Sydney and read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for pleasure. Soon after, survived by his wife, he died on 31 July 1989 at his home at North Avalon and was cremated. The ACC established the G. C. O’Donnell biennial essay prize later that year. Twenty years later CAL had paid authors and publishers $600 million.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Hill, A Writer’s Rights (1983)
  • P. Meredith, Realising the Vision (2004)
  • B883, item PX144 (National Archives of Australia)
  • O’Donnell papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Pullan, 'O'Donnell, Gustaf Charles (1912–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/odonnell-gustaf-charles-15395/text26603, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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