Copyright theft cannot be condoned in the name of promoting democratic student culture

Are Delhi University’s students justified in their anger over a ban on photocopying of books? The university instituted a ban after three publishers, including Oxford University Press (OUP) and Cambridge University Press (CUP), filed a suit. The publishers claim a shop in the university hands out “course materials,” essentially photocopies of books that are recommended reading.

The students agree they do this, but refuse to buy the OUP and CUP books. They say they won’t unless the books are discounted for them by these publishers.

According to a released statement, which has not yet been disowned, DU’s students and faculty want that a “strict warning be given to these criminal presses that they cannot get away with this sort of bullying and stifling of democratic student culture.”

I accept we have fallen as a nation but when did copyright theft by the middle class become democratic culture? I am puzzled also by the demand that the publishers should subsidise the books. It shows that DU’s students and those in the faculty who agree with them have little idea about the books they study and teach.

Let us look at some books from two of these publishers. This list compares the net price at which the book is sold in India with the net price (in brackets) at which the book is sold abroad. Paperbacks have been compared to paperbacks.

Published by Cambridge University Press

Socio-religious reform movements in India, by Kenneth Jones Rs.295 (Rs.3,150)

A Social History of the Deccan, by Richard Eaton Rs.626 (Rs.5,175)

The Marathas, by Stewart Gordon Rs.150 (Rs.6,015)

The Sikhs of the Punjab, by J.S. Grewal Rs.250 (Rs.5,484)

Published by Oxford University Press

Illustrating India, by Jennifer Howes Rs.2,655 (Rs.11,883)

Jawaharlal Nehru, by S. Gopal Rs.2,025 (Rs.12,435)

Interpreting Mughal painting, by Som Prakash Verma Rs.535 (Rs.2,760)

Mughals and Franks, by Sanjay Subrahmanyam Rs.338 (Rs.1,545)

I have listed these books because I bought them in the last few days. I have been buying books from OUP and CUP for many years, and can assure readers that they do not sell a book in India at the same price as they do abroad.

This is true for most publishers. Volumes from the inexpensive but high quality Penguin Black Classics series are usually half the price in India as the identical book is abroad. Virgil’s Aeneid (translated by Robert Fagles) is Rs.250 here and Rs.570 abroad. Valmiki’s Ramayana (translated by Arshia Sattar) is Rs.499 here and Rs.2,072 abroad.

It is because of this that someone in India may be able to put together a library of some quality while paying mostly half and often only a quarter of what someone elsewhere might.

And this comparison isn’t restricted to the West. Books are more expensive in Pakistan.

Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice is Rs.374 here and Rs.613 (Pakistani Rs.1,050) there. Even books that should be cheaper in Pakistan are not. Stanley Wolpert’s Jinnah is Rs.395 here and Rs.522 (Pakistani Rs.895) there. Books are more expensive in Sri Lanka. K.M. DeSilva’s History of Sri Lanka is Rs.650 here and Rs.814 (Lankan Rs.1,950) there.

I worked for the publisher Dorling Kindersley in the late 1990s, and can inform the DU faculty and students that no millions are made by selling books here. Anyone who actually pays for books regularly will know that India is one of the world’s best places to do this.

Helping Indian students

Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press have done outstanding service to India and in particular to Indian students. They have done this first by commissioning and publishing the finest studies of India and its culture. Histories unrivalled for quality including those written in Indian languages. Second, they have subsidised Indians, and given us these works for less than they are worth and often many times less than others currently pay for them.

It is fine not to acknowledge their service (in my opinion Indians are particularly ungrateful), but it is indecent to call them criminals.

And then this threat is made:

“As a reaction, if this case is not revoked immediately, we students and faculty members have decided to boycott these three presses. We will actively ensure that no books of these three presses are used in the campus and will urge all teachers not to recommend any books or readings published by them. Instead we would work on other options of open sources and free dissemination of knowledge and urge other faculty and students to do the same.”

I find it staggering that some in the faculty should seriously believe that open sources (Wikipedia?) could replace these scholarly texts. Why not go ahead? It addresses both the problem of poor students and the complaint of copyright theft. The fact is that it is an empty threat. There is no replacement.

Indians are used to getting stuff cheap and preferably want literature free. The Pakistani newspaper I write a column for costs Rs.20 a copy and it is not an exception. This is because gathering, editing and publishing information requires money. But paying Rs.10 for a newspaper, even one of the quality of The Hindu, seems unthinkable here. So we must not see this rage at being stopped from photocopying someone’s life’s work in isolation.

It is not expected that students will show maturity in this. The history of India’s violent student actions show that they usually can be trusted to do the wrong thing. However, the faculty should distance itself from this obscene attack. If it is true that there are not enough books in the library, a solution may be found in better facilities, or in middle class students sharing their books with less fortunate classmates. DU’s alumni could step forward and make a contribution to its libraries.

To malign these publishers for defending themselves against theft is unfair and unjust.

Threatening to discard them is to kill the goose that’s laying for all of us golden eggs.

(Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.)

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