The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It can be said without any hesitation now that violation of intellectual property rights, such as piracy and lifting large sections of the author’s original works without due acknowledgement — are almost impossible to police in India. Publishers who are worst affected have neither time nor money to bring the crooks to book; the police regard it as petty crime despite the fact that it has been made a cognizable offence under the amended Copyright Act, reissued in 2003. So, unless the publisher is a big shot with a hefty pull and has inexhaustible patience (and courage) to ferret out the thieves in the dark corners and then slug it out in the lower courts, thievery and plagiarism will continue unabated.

But can this failure be explained as a case of the spirit being willing and the flesh weak' Or is it something in the nature of the new technology that has made it easier to duplicate material without due acknowledgement or payment' Start with the ubiquitous photocopier — available in every decent office, school and college, or even at the public call office around the corner. Hardly anyone thinks twice now before reproducing articles, certain chapters from books or even entire books that are spiral bound and in an easy-to-read format. This is ironical, given that the photocopier is next in line to the printing press, the starting point for copyright law. As a print technologist put it, this copyright’s “technological foundation has turned, like a vital organ grown cancerous, into an enemy.”

And now we have the new technology, the internet, information highways which have no clear ownership and are almost impossible to police. This is how a professor of communications from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology put it: “Most people worry about copyright in terms of the ease of making copies. In the digital world, not only is the ease at issue, but also the fact that the digital copy is as perfect as the original and, with some fancy computing, even better. In the same way that bit strings can be error-corrected, a copy can be cleaned up and enhanced.”

Internet duplication is not only efficient, it is incredibly easy too. Besides, nobody has a clear idea of who pays for what on the internet, but it appears free to most of its users. Even if this changes in the future and some rational economic model is put up for using the internet, it will still cost very little to distribute “copies” to thousands of people, less than even ordinary postage costs.

So, what is to be done' Should traditional ideas of copyright be abandoned' Or should the current laws be tightened even if it is impracticable, or should a more liberal regime be introduced' For authors who may have spent years on study and research, it would be galling to see their efforts picked clean without any compensation. So the law, however difficult to enforce, must remain in place. Owners of intellectual property could look to other sources of income by working the cost of illicit copying into their overheads or royalties. This should not be too difficult as the communications revolution has reached every nook and corner of India today. All it takes is some basic computing knowledge. The time has long since gone when authors had to rely exclusively on royalties from their books in print.

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