The fine print on the photocopy ban

Aakar Patel’s article “Pages Apart” (Op-Ed Page, Sept. 11) that deems photocopying as “theft” by the “middle-class” students of Delhi University reflects his ignorance of the reality of DU.

Mr. Patel’s ideas are inexplicably simplistic for someone who works in the media. For instance, Patel’s comparison of the prices of Indian editions of OUP and CUP books with their western and other South Asian editions are conversions of book prices based on currency values –– the notion of purchasing power parity seems to not matter to Mr. Patel. Obviously, foreign editions priced in dollars and pounds will cost much more in Indian rupees. And book exports from India to Pakistan or Sri Lanka will have marked up prices. Secondly, books in India are priced relatively lower because of cheap labour. Those involved in the business –– sales and marketing executives, and commissioning editors –– get fat salaries, while those who produce books –– authors, copyeditors, and paper, printing and transportation workers –– remain underpaid. Down the supply chain, book distributors are entitled to about 40 per cent of a book’s printed price, while authors are paid a scant 5 per cent or so for every book sold. No academic author would dream of growing rich on money gained from their book’s sales. It would be well worth noting that not a single author has as yet taken issue to their work being photocopied by students. And since most authors own the copyright for their work, the moralising implicit in deriding “photocopying someone’s life work” is uncalled for.

Mr. Patel also makes the mistake of clubbing trade publishing and newspapers with academic publishing, but as those in the business know, these industries work on different commissioning and author payment models.

First print runs of academic books are about 750 copies, to break even. Though producing hardback books does not cost much more than paperbacks, hardbacks —priced with highemargins — allow the publishing house to make heavy profits on every book sold, in case the book does not go into a reprint. The first print run is also roughly the number of libraries and university departments and faculty who regularly buy academic books. First editions are simply not intended for students, and this is why Mr. Patel can blithely call students “immature”. Cheaper, paperback editions to be bought in large numbers only occur when books become part of academic thinking, not syllabi. And, contrary to what Mr. Patel seems to assume, higher education is not simply about putting together textbooks.

OUP and CUP, both university presses, should know this already. They are attached to Oxford and Cambridge universities, and are subsidised by them. Why is it that in India they are expected to reap profits? Why is it acceptable for these presses to criminalise students? This is because editorial wisdom and investment in the academic market is increasingly being sacrificed at the altar of easy profit.

While Mr. Patel’s assumption that ‘open source’ means websites like Wikipedia is rather ignorant, his hastily-suggested solutions border on the bizarre. He speaks of “better facilities” when funding for higher education is being curtailed. More appalling is his suggestion that “middle-class” students who can afford books must share them with their “less fortunate classmates”! Such statements smack of an elitism that is patronising and comfortable with inequitable access to education in the first place. Finally, comments on the immaturity of “students” and the “history of India’s violent student actions” are in poor taste.

Surely, operating by market logic, we consumers have the right to reject the indignity of being called thieves. And who is to say that this moment cannot be used by Indian academia to strengthen independent indigenous academic thought, aided by indigenous, editorial-led academic publishers? Mr. Patel in his glorification of foreign presses seems to forget that great service has been done by Indian presses such as Manohar, Orient Blackswan, Permanent Black and others to Indian academia.

We believe books in libraries are meant to be studied and copied from in the interest of academic excellence, and photocopying does not constitute either piracy or plagiarism. It raises the hackles of publishers not for ethical, but deeply economic reasons. OUP, CUP and Taylor & Francis would be better off withdrawing their spurious case because all they are doing is endangering their continued existence in the Indian market. Students they alienate today will be the scholars who will not publish with them or buy their books tomorrow!

Aakar Patel responds

To repeat what I had written:

— The demand that OUP and CUP subsidise Indians is flawed. They already subsidise Indians. Books here are among the cheapest in the world, often being a fraction of their cost elsewhere as I have shown.

— To refer to these publishers as criminals is indecent. They have done great service to Indian students.

— If open source material is acceptable, why not go ahead and adopt it? It resolves the issue for students unable or unwilling to pay for published material and also for the upset publishers.

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Pages apartSeptember 11, 2012

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