Mira T. Sundara Rajan, a great grand-daughter of Tamil poet Subramania Bharati and leading proponent of ‘moral rights' of authors, says she is concerned with the cultural, not the economic side of copyright.

A pioneering academic in the field of intellectual property, Canada-based Dr. Mira T. Sundara Rajan is a polymath with an illustrious lineage. She is also a composer, distinguished law professor, budding poet and a great-granddaughter of Mahakavi Subramania Bharati, whom she credits as a force at the centre of her life. She has also been acclaimed in India as a concert pianist. Her new book, Moral Rights: Principles, Practice and New Technology (Oxford University Press, 2011), explores emerging questions about authorial ownership and the “special relationship” between a work and its creator in the age of the Internet. Excerpts from a conversation…

Your new book, Moral Rights, deals with the issue of intellectual property in the digital domain. Can you tell us briefly about moral rights?

Basically, moral rights protect an author's non-commercial, personal and cultural rights. The expression comes from the French – droit moral – which means “personal rights” or “intellectual rights”, but doesn't have the same connotation in English. Attribution and integrity are the two rights that are protected: attribution is the right to be named and identified as the author, and integrity is what protects the work from harm (for example, preventing a moustache being painted on the Mona Lisa!). The moral rights aspect of creative work in the technological context has not been addressed. Discussion of copyright issues, especially at the international level is focused on the economic rights and how much money an author can make from his or her work. My interest is in the cultural side of things, not the economic side. And I think it's a serious concern in the Internet age. To give you an example, a person could find a poem online that is attributed to Subramania Bharati. He or she would suffer the harm of false knowledge; this would affect how someone understands his or her own culture.

You've explored moral rights in various global contexts in your book. Do you feel that the concept, or the understanding of it, varies based on the cultural and historical frameworks?

The short answer is: it does, yes. Each country has its own perspective on moral rights, depending not just on legal factors but also on cultural factors. The law is really an expression of the culture. I'll give you two examples – in England, they have moral rights in the Copyright Act, but they are bit skeptical about authors' personal interests, so they don't really embrace the concept. And in contrast would be India, which has a very strong understanding of moral rights, and even more than the government, the courts really feel they have a mission to protect India's culture.

But the protection of culture is also something that has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists, communalists, misogynists and the like. How do you see this in relation to moral rights?

Actually, moral rights are a very important way of fighting against that. The whole concept of moral rights is to protect the special relationship between an author and his or her work. So think of the implications for censorship for example – no one can interfere with that relationship if the moral right is upheld. For example, Anand Patwardhan sued because parts of his film had been reused by filmmakers who had misrepresented his secular perspective, and the Mumbai High Court upheld his right.

How are moral rights placed in relation to the Copyleft movement, and movements like Creative Commons?

The common wisdom is that moral rights and Copyleft/Creative Commons don't get along. But if you look more closely, they actually do protect moral rights. My observation is that they are highly compatible. In the US, apart from one very conservative federal law that only covers visual arts, they have no legislative protection for moral rights. In this sense, the Creative Commons might be the only protection generally available there for moral rights because the Creative Commons system of licenses is based on attribution. The Creative Commons community is really interested in protecting the quality of the knowledge that is disseminated, protecting it from adulteration. But, these movements – Open Source, Copyleft, Creative Commons – don't address the question of how authors are supposed to earn a living from their work, and I do criticise them for this in my book. In order to write the book, I had to take a year's sabbatical, and I question whether any serious author could have done otherwise. There has to be a way to provide financial support for artists and writers.

Intellectual property law is only one aspect of your work – you're also an acclaimed classical pianist. How does your academic research lend itself to your creative life, and vice versa?

They have quite a natural relationship. I got interested in this aspect of law because I am an artist. And the artistic community is interested in me because of my knowledge of IP rights. I think it's much easier, or even necessary, to have an understanding of art in order to have an understanding of IP law. And that's a deficiency a lot of IP lawyers have – they don't understand the psychological impact of how an artist feels when something is done to his or her work.

Having grown up outside of India, in what ways – if any – do you remain connected to this cultural ethos?

It is important to me and my connection is really through Subramania Bharati. That's everything.

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