New Delhi, March 9: Three international publishers today moved court to withdraw a five-year-long lawsuit against photocopying of textbooks for use as study material in Delhi University.
The petition brings the curtains down on a battle whose outcome drew populist applause but left unanswered questions on ensuring the quality of specialised textbooks, just remuneration for scholars who write such books and the viability of the publishing business model.
The case had started in 2012 after the publishers moved the high court against the photocopy shop, Rameshwari Photocopy, on the campus of the Delhi School of Economics, which is part of Delhi University.
In a statement, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor & Francis said they had "taken a considered decision not to pursue" the case and would be "filing an application with... Delhi High Court to withdraw as plaintiffs".
The publishers said they "support and seek to enable equitable access to knowledge for students".
Later in the day, Sakshi Aggarwal of PR Pundit, a public relations agency that handles media affairs for the publishers, confirmed they had filed the application.
The Association of Students for Equitable Access to Knowledge (ASEAK), a pleader in the case, welcomed the development.
"This is a major victory for the student movement and academics, who worked in tandem with some of the most committed lawyers, to ensure access to knowledge is not sacrificed at the altar of commercial gains," it said in a statement.
Sanjay Kumar Singh, director of Triguna Publishers, a publishing house of academic books, said the publishing industry and budding authors would be adversely affected.
"The private publishers will not prefer to take risks. They may not take up the literary works of new authors. In a way, it will affect research output and the publication sector," Singh said.
He said the government and the University Grants Commission should have taken steps to make institutions and libraries take licence from the Indian Reprographic Rights Organisation (IRRO), which has virtually become defunct now.
The publishers had alleged that Rameshwari Photocopy was bringing out "course packs" by reproducing without authorisation study material from their books and selling them to students, violating the Copyright Act and depriving the publishers and the authors of royalty.
The publishers said they wanted institutions and individual photocopiers to apply for a licence from the IRRO to be able to make copies of books to the extent permissible.
The court initially stayed such photocopying. But in September last year, a single-judge bench ruled that "copyright, especially in literary works, is not an inevitable, divine, or natural right that confers on authors the absolute ownership of their creations".
The petitioners then moved a division bench, pleading that multiple copies of study material amounted to entering the realm of "publication" and not merely "reproduction", and sought an injunction on the single bench ruling.
On December 9, the division bench said it did not agree with the plaintiffs. It held that a publication would have an element of profit, which was missing in the case of reproduction of a work by a teacher to be used in the course of instructions.
The bench directed restoration of the trial before a single-judge bench on the limited point whether the copying was being done as "course of instruction" or any other purpose. The matter was scheduled to come up tomorrow.
After the publishers decided to withdraw as plaintiffs, the case is no longer expected to exist.
In their statement this morning, the publishers also said: "In addition, we will not be submitting an appeal to the Supreme Court of India, following the Delhi High Court Division Bench appeal decision of 09 December, 2016."
"We understand and endorse the important role that course packs play in the education of students. We support our authors in helping them produce materials of the highest standard and we maintain that copyright law plays an important part in balancing the interests of those creating, curating, and disseminating learning materials with those requiring access to them," the statement said.
"We look forward to working even more closely with academic institutions, teachers and students to understand and address their needs, while also ensuring that all those who contribute to and improve India's education system - including authors and publishers - continue to do so for the long term," it added.
Student group ASEAK said: "While we celebrate today, we know the real task lies ahead - ensuring that publicly funded knowledge production is kept publicly accessible."
Dharampal Singh, who runs the photocopy shop, said the decision of the publishers to withdraw from the case would help photocopy shops in institutions to fulfil the needs of students and teachers.
"We have started production of course packs from last year. Whatever little apprehension was there, is now over. We will continue to provide materials at a low cost," Singh said.
Delhi University professor Alka Chawla, an expert on copyright laws, said the IRRO licensing mechanism was not working.
"With the withdrawal of the plaintiffs, the Delhi High Court judgment stands. That allows preparation of course packs. The authors were never getting any extra compensation from the IRRO, which is supposed to give licence to allow photocopying of books. The IRRO is defunct," Chawla said.