The Telegraph
Friday , January 8 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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Free flow

Amendments to the Indian Copyright Act, 1999, have been proposed because advances in print and communications technology have made it easier to duplicate materials without acknowledgment or payment. The problem started when every office, school and college acquired its own photocopier that reproduced articles, chapters from books, or even whole books. Why buy six or 60 copies of a publication when you can make do with one?

Now with sophisticated scanners, expansion of the internet, Google acquiring the reprint rights of hundreds of out-of-copyright books, and Kindle to bring them to you at the touch of a button, does it make much sense to stick to outdated laws when open piracy or the illegal printing of books is a bit of a sick joke?

Besides, is it possible to legislate a stricter law on copyright violation when policing on infringements is so difficult in a vast country such as ours? Above all, is it worthwhile to impose restrictions on the free flow of information, especially for educational books? But what happens then to the publishers and authors? How do they survive?

First, the basics. It is not illegal to photocopy articles or even whole books if it is done for private consumption and not for commercial purposes. Quite apart from the fact that is not possible to keep a tab on the photocopiers and scanners that are so widely accessible in libraries, what is interesting is that photocopying (with spiral binding) is a cottage industry outside several university campuses. It is not illegal because the photocopier is doing a job for his client on a one-off basis (that he could repeat it time and again is another matter), and not as a regular business.

More importantly, whole books are seldom photocopied; only the selections that serve an immediate purpose are done. These selections, stapled together, do not detract from the sales of the books; on the contrary, like extracts from forthcoming books, they stimulate sales.

Imposing restrictions, like organizing police raids on suspected pirates, would be a damper on the dissemination of knowledge. Students in professional courses such as science, technology, medicine and accountancy where most books are priced at Rs 500 and above, would be the worst sufferers. In any case, all our top professional institutions (including students’ hostels) are so amply provided with photocopiers that it would be impossible to check piracy.

The counter question is whether publishers lose sales because of rampant photocopying and authors lose royalties which they would have earned from enhanced sales. No empirical studies have been done because reliable data is hard to come by, and a case can be made either way, depending on whose side you are.

But there is no doubt that both publishers and authors are convinced that some sales are lost because reprint technology is so widely available at highly competitive rates. For instance, if a technical book that is priced at Rs 500 is available at less than half that amount, students would rather make a copy of their own at the corner shop. Publishers and authors are acutely aware of this possibility, and therefore calculate their returns not on the sale of the entire edition but on a little less, say on 80 percent of the edition.

So what is to be done? There is no way you can put a brake on the developing technology that becomes more and more sophisticated at less and less cost every year. Legislation also cannot put a stop on widespread photocopying for private use. Publishers should be more judicious in the choice of titles to be published, and attempt to publish at prices that would make the reading public go for the originals rather than make do with a photocopy.

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