The fine print on the photocopy ban

Aakar Patel, in his diatribe against the students and faculty members of Delhi University on the photocopy issue (“Pages Apart”, Op-Ed Page, Sept. 11), makes a number of erroneous assumptions. I address here some of the most important.

1. That students indulge in “copyright theft” by photocopying course material. Not true. Laws are not absolute, and there exist exceptions and limitations to virtually every law. The Indian Copyright Act has two explicit provisions that allow for educational exceptions. Copyright lawyer Lawrence Liang shows that “Sec. 52(1)(i) allows for ‘the reproduction of any work by a teacher or a pupil in the course of instruction’ or as a part of questions or answers to questions. Further, Sec. 52(1)(a) allows for a fair dealing with any work (except computer programs) for the purposes of private or personal use, including research.” Legally, students and teachers are on firm ground. In fact, by claiming huge damages, it is the publishers who are trying to subvert the educational exceptions that are available in law. This is typical of corporations — use shock and awe tactics to illegalise in public perception a perfectly legal practice. All for private profit.

2. That the photocopies being done are always and only from books. Amazingly, Mr. Patel does not mention journals even once. Journals, especially in the sciences and law, are often prohibitively expensive. Libraries are being forced to cut down on journal subscriptions. Libraries typically get single copies of journals that they do subscribe to. How is a class of even 50 expected to read from a single copy in the library? And what about books that are simply not available in the market, at whatever price?

3. That it is always entire books that are photocopied. Not true. In most cases, it is only a small part of a particular book that the student is asked to read. Take the M.A. Sociology syllabus from the Delhi School of Economics, where the shop under litigation is located. Students are recommended 544 readings. Of these, not counting journal articles, we have been able to ascertain the prices of 296 books. Mr. Patel cites the Indian prices of 13 books, which cost, cumulatively, Rs. 9,042 (on average, Rs. 695 per book). At that average, 296 books should cost Rs. 205,720.

But what do the books cost in fact? Taking the lowest prices (even when the book is not available at that price), the total comes to Rs 577,902. Even after taking out all books that cost over Rs 2,500, the student will have to spend Rs 277,956. Not exactly small change.

Note, too, that the prices of science and law books are significantly higher.

Some of the discussion of this issue (on the blogosphere etc.) has centred around whether there should be a legally permissible limit to how much of a book a student might photocopy. The Indian Copyright Act is clear on this. There is no upper limit prescribed. In other words, legally, in certain circumstances, a student can photocopy an entire book, if it is ‘in the course of instruction’.

4. That the publishers are responsible for ‘commissioning and publishing’ studies. Well, yes. But only after universities pay academics salaries and provide facilities to carry out research in the first place. And at least a part of the university budget comes from students’ fees (not to mention taxpayers’ money).

OUP and CUP, ironically, should know this better than anyone else. They would be nothing without the universities whose names they derive so much prestige from.

5. That students are selfish, violent, immature. Well, maybe some are. But then so are many corporations. And their Directors. And lawyers. And CEOs. And Heads of States.

6. That open access publishing is not a realistic option. Not true. In the sciences, there already exist a large number of open access, peer-reviewed journals of the highest standards.

And books? Readers might want to download a free pdf of a LeftWord title here. We have also published many of our titles under a Creative Commons license.

Alternatives to copyright and the rule of monopolies exist. Assuming, of course, that we see knowledge as a right of all humankind, not merely as a means for profit-making.

(Sudhanva Deshpande is Managing Editor, LeftWord Books, and an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, Delhi. He can be reached at

1. See and-cambridge-university-publishers- v-students-of-india/

2. See, for example, peer_reviewed.htm.

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.


Pages apartSeptember 11, 2012

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