Meera Nair

international publishers v. Indian photocopying

In Posts on April 30, 2013 at 9:05 pm posted a brief note about a lawsuit underway in India; one which pits international publishers against a photocopy service at Delhi University. The complaint, filed in 2012 and now being heard in the courts, concerns the compilation and distribution of course packs. “This lawsuit sent shock waves across the academic community, leading more than 300 authors and academics including famed Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen to protest this copyright aggression in an open letter to publishers.”

In “Why students need the right to copy,” published by The Hindu, Shamnad Basheer writes: “What makes the lawsuit particularly egregious is the fact that publishers are effectively seeking an outright ban on all course packs, even those that extract and use no more than 10 per cent of the copyrighted book.” Basheer, a prominent intellectual property scholar, is keenly aware that such use would be considered legitimate in the United States and that Indian law offers even wider latitude for unauthorized uses of copyrighted works for educational needs:

… unlike the U.S., [Indian law] embodies a separate exception, under which it is perfectly legal to reproduce any copyrighted work during the course of educational instruction. These exceptions reflect a clear Parliamentary intention to exempt core aspects of education from the private sphere of copyright infringement. Eviscerating these exceptions at the behest of publishers will strike at the very heart of our constitutional guarantee of a fundamental right to education for all.

Noting that the publishers have dangled the offer of collective licensing to Indian educational institutions, Basheer is emphatic that this is a bad idea. He points to Canadian misfortune in this area; he indicates that the costs and administrative burdens inherent to licensing are unnecessary when a suitable educational exemption is available under the law.

Basheer also comments upon the paucity of material available for the Indian market:

That a majority of educational textbooks are priced above the affordability range of an average Indian student is well known. A recent empirical study done by me along with my students reveals that a vast majority of popular legal and social science titles have no corresponding Indian editions and need to be purchased at rates equivalent to or higher than in the West… (emphasis mine)

The Indian court is aware of the public interest implicated by this case and has permitted a students’ association to be party to the suit. The Association of Students for Equitable Access to Knowledge (ASEAK) expressed their concerns to Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor & Francis, and conveyed the open letter. The displeasure of 309 members from the international academic community, including the 33 authors whose works were allegedly infringed, is plain:

As authors and educators, we would like to place on record our distress at this act of the publishers, as we recognise the fact that in a country like India marked by sharp economic inequalities, it is often not possible for every student to obtain a personal copy of a book. …  In that situation the next best thing would have been for multiple copies of the book to be available in the library so that students are able to access these books without any difculty. But given the constraints that libraries in India work with, they may only have a single copy of a book and in many instances, none at all. The reason we make course packs is to ensure that students have access to the most relevant portions of the book without which we would be seriously compromising their education.

The argument made by publishers for strong copyright enforcement is based on presumed losses caused to them. Given the pricing strategy followed by publishers, we do not believe that students are the primary market for these books and hence it would be disingenuous to presume that every photocopied article or book would be a lost sale.

Moreover, the academic members question the claim that academic publishing will cease without publishers’ investments:

This claim hides the fact that most academics are able to write books because they are supported by public infrastructure and money by virtue of being employed by universities or research centers. Academic writers are paid salaries and make their living from the university system, which in India is still largely government subsidized. … [In effect] the profits of academic publishing houses are under-written by tax-payers’ money.

The students also submitted other letters of concern. Amartya Sen appealed to publishers’ consideration of the importance of education and pragmatically suggested this suit is not in their own long-term interests:

…. In fact, the introduction the students get through these course packs must tend to be favorable to the sale of books in the future when the existence and the quality of arguments presented in particular books become more familiar to the next generation of earning adults…

Perhaps the best argument for throwing out the case is from another plaintiff-without-consent, Raju Ramachandran.  He modestly describes himself as a lawyer (he is a senior advocate with the Supreme Court of India):

 I am of the clear view that photocopying of [my] essay for educational use would be ‘fair use’ and would also fall under the educational exception in our copyright law. I would also like to make my position as an author very clear that nothing can be more fulfilling for me than the fact that the student community would be reading and discussing my views. I would be deeply disappointed if students are not able to access and debate my views only because they are unable to buy the book in which my essay is printed.

The case will continue on May 8, 2013.

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