Public discourse on the omnibus copyright law changes approved by Parliament last month has largely focused on the controversy in the film industry over the provision that gives music composers and lyricists the right to claim royalties if their music is used in any other form — a ring tone, for example — apart from the film for which the composition was made and sold. The change, which is in keeping with the practice in Hollywood and elsewhere in the West, puts an end to a stifling and commercially exploitative system in which film producers, and not the creators of music, were regarded as the sole author of the work. Almost unnoticed in the producer versus composer hullabaloo were some other progressive changes in the Copyright Act such as the one that allows organisations to provide persons suffering from disabilities with access to special formats of books on a non-profit basis without the consent of the copyright owner — an empowering provision that will encourage conversion of books into accessible formats such as Braille and Daisy. The Bill is also a boost for the open licensing model with the idea of a stronger public domain reflected in the amended Section 21 that permits authors to relinquish any or all copyright rights through a mere notice to the Registrar of Copyrights.
Interestingly, the provision for parallel imports of books, part of an earlier 2010 version of the Bill, has been quietly dropped. Parallel imports would have allowed the import of a book published outside India without the mandatory licence from its Indian copyright owner. Although such imports would have liberalised book distribution, some Indian publishing houses, which stand to gain from their monopolies over the import of books, seem to have had their way. Overall, the copyright amendments were justified by the government as a measure to update existing laws with international and World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) norms. Although India is not a signatory to either the WIPO Copyright Treaty or the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty, which address the challenge of protecting copyright of works over the internet, the Bill recognises the Digital Rights Management regime which is designed to ensure copyright holders can use technology such as encryption and access control devices to prevent illegal reproduction. The use of such digital locks in impeding the free exchange of content is a controversial and complex issue. Indian courts must now ensure that the DRM regime strikes the right balance between the interest of copyright owners and the legitimate, fair use access of users to digital content.