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Copyright as cultural notion

That book history is gradually coming of age becomes evident when the National Library organises the first BS Kesavan Lecture on this subject that few were aware of even a decade ago. The lecture on Saturday at Bhasha Bhavan on the library premises in the memory of the first National Librarian after Independence was by A.R. Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies on the “Cultures of Copyright.”

Presiding over the event, Jawhar Sircar, secretary, ministry of culture, asked the rhetorical question: “Where are the Kesavans of today”, as there is a dearth of librarians and archivists in this country, and the system is on the point of collapse. But he had no ready solutions to this problem. Swapan Chakravorty, director-general, National Library, introduced those present, including Mukul Kesavan.

Venkatachalapathy, in a blue silk shirt and veshthi, said his contention was that although copyright is a legal notion, in India it was more of a moral and cultural notion. He began his lecture saying in the beginning he was critical of BS Kesavan’s publications, History of Printing and Publishing in India and The Book In India: A Compilation, and of Sisir Kumar Das’s book as well. But it later changed to appreciation as he realised how difficult it was to write history.

In the past 10 to 15 years there has been an “efflorescence” of interest in book history but the field is “barely scratched”. Venkatachalapathy related a humorous story of the medieval Tamil poet, Kambar, who authored the Tamil Ramayan. He was delighted to be present at a literary discourse on his work. But he soon realised that the verses being recited were not his own. “Every aspect of copyright was being violated by interpolation,” he commented.

In a scribal and oral cultures like ours, the only way of preserving manuscripts was copying these. This was an expensive proposition and the Jains had an institutionalised way of doing it. Copies of these manuscripts were given away to scholars, but this does not gel with modern notions of copyright, Venkatachalapathy said. We look at texts, while in institutions like the Library of Congress books are listed according to the names of authors.

In colonial times, while Indian authors expected patronage, the East India Company looked at copyright. In Madras, when a Telugu scholar produced a dictionary, the Company was willing to pay him a king’s ransom for its copyright. But the scholar wanted perpetual pension and rent-free land. Again, when another author translated the Dharmashastra and the Company sought its copyright, the brother of the deceased author looked for patronage.

The British kept tabs on literary production and this was when modern notions of copyright entered. It was only with the rise of the novel that the commercial value of books was realised. Till then most publishing was done by the author himself. In the 1920s, the corollary of publishing, royalty, was actually talked about.

There were very few copyright cases in colonial days and these involved publishing in English. There was a keenly fought case involving a collection of biographical essays, many of which, another man claimed, were by him.

In the 1940s, the notion of copyright was one of simple transaction — outright sale of copyright for a pittance. When a man said he was a writer, he was asked what he did for a living — the earnings were so meagre. Kalki was a successful journalist and writer, but when he wanted to join the satyagraha, his employer was not happy. He said what Kalki had written was as an employee and thus had to relinquish his copyright. The case was hotly debated in Kerala. The writer’s claim was always made on moral and cultural grounds, not on legal grounds.

When the same song on different topical issues made the rounds, several people would claim authorship. Copyright was recognised only if registered. After Independence, 50 years after the death of Subramanya Bharathi, his songs and works were placed in the public domain in 1949, overruling the legal right of two men. The government gave a decent sum to Bharathi’s widow although she had no legal right, the move stemming from the notion of moral responsibility. Moral and cultural claims superseded legal notions.

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