The middle-class Bengali relates the word ‘copyright’ most readily to Tagore. The lifting of Visva-Bharati’s copyright on Tagore’s works had created a massive turmoil in the Bengali mind in 2002. It made the middle-class Bengali realize the importance of intellectual property rights.
But even after this realization, middle classes not only in Bengal but also across the country either have very little idea about the implication of the term ‘copyright’, or see it just as a theoretical concept. In this milieu, the court case over copyright infringement that Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis Group have filed against a photocopy shop at the Delhi School of Economics is new to the average Indian. A large number of people in India have gotten comfortable with using technology too quickly. Many of them are not even educated enough to know about copyright infringement and its nuances. To bring up the issue of photocopying study material — which has been a practice among Indian students for decades owing to the high price of reference books — as violation of copyright is therefore more complicated than it seems.
Apart from the lack of awareness about the concept, copyright infringement still remains quite a bit in the grey area in spite of numerous amendments and revisions of copyright laws and frequent controversies over them in many countries. In this particular context, xerox machines have posed a number of threats to copyright laws since 1959, when photocopying first became popular. To counter the questions raised by the large-scale copying of books, the concept of “fair use” had come into being, and later incorporated into the copyright laws of the United States of America in 1976 as an exception to the rule. With the court case involving the Delhi School of Economics, this issue has touched India too, where so far photocopying textbooks and study material had been natural for students.
Indian copyright laws include a clause similar to fair use — “fair dealing”. This provision is also in use in the United Kingdom. Fair dealing allows the making of copies for critical evaluation, news reports, research and other academic purposes, but not for commercial use. Fair use creates similar provisions, but is far more flexible in its attitude towards sharing information. But fair dealing sticks to the specific usages and purposes mentioned in the law, and a court may condemn a particular usage of the clause as a violation of copyright laws because of any minor deviation from the rule. In the case of photocopying, even the provision of fair dealing has its limitations. Photocopied study material is not used commercially by the students, but the owner of the xerox machine gains commercially from it.
The puzzle of copyright laws is yet to be fully solved. But with the advent of the new media, copyright laws face an even bigger challenge than the one posed by xerox machines. If photocopying books is a problem for publishers, how are they going to deal with books being scanned and uploaded on the internet for millions across the world to read? If this is considered a violation of the laws, how will governments and law enforcement agencies trace the perpetrators and convict them? In this age of WikiLeaks, even tracing back IP addresses may not help. Also, most copyright laws are ambiguous about electronic reproduction.
There is also the question of political boundaries and the ‘free’ world of the internet. Different countries have different laws, but there is no defined set of laws to govern the worldwide virtual mesh in which information — of any and every kind — can be passed on from one corner of the globe to another in a matter of minutes. This virtual world knows no boundaries — political or geographical. The viability of fair use in copyright laws is questionable here. Xerox machines are an easier problem to deal with in comparison.