Books are our window to the world. They can make us laugh, smile, shed a tear or drive us mad while we try to understand that difficult mathematical derivation.

Sometimes books can also lead us to important questions about the copyright regime and its implications in the educational sphere.

When Prashanth Ellina, a software professional based in Bangalore, decided to offer free downloads of all the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks (Class I to Class XII), the copyright framework was the last thing on his mind.

The content on the site (www.notemonk.com) was itself from the NCERT's own website, which Mr. Ellina serially downloaded and designed a better interface to house the material. The NCERT's portal has been non-functional for nearly a year now as according to G. Ravindra, Director (Incharge), “many have been taking content from the site and publishing it. We will remove a few pages and put the books online again so that only students will be able to use it.”

Apart from the textbooks, Notemonk enables registered members to ask questions and interact on specific topics. Since each chapter is organised hierarchically, the discussion forums are topic-specific.

Some students have also uploaded digital photographs of their lecture notes. We are in the process of linking material to relevant educational videos on Youtube, he says.

When a Class 12 student in West Bengal answers queries in Physics from a Class 10 student in Orissa, Mr. Ellina says, “It shows the enabling aspect of the web.”

What started as a need to “have a reference on my desktop” because it was “too much trouble to buy the textbooks from a shop” snowballed into a debate about copyright when the NCERT came calling.

In an email on June 11, Rajaram S. Sharma, Head of the Department of Computer Education, NCERT, said: “We appreciate your spirit of furthering the cause of education, which we all espouse. But you are hereby notified that your actions of uploading NCERT books on your site, is without permission from us and is a clear copyright violation. You may at best maintain a link to the books on the NCERT website after written permission.”

Recommending a move towards a Creative Commons licence regime for critical educational resources, Prashant Iyengar, researcher at the Alternative Law Forum, says that not only the NCERT, but all public-funded educational institutions, must make their content free for everyone to access.

Since India is one of the cheapest markets for printing, it makes sense to make the content free, he says. Shortage of textbooks is a huge problem in most State-run school education boards. “Providing free content would be a huge leverage to disseminate educational content. It can be printed locally at low cost and in a timely fashion.”

According to him, copyright should not come in the way of access to educational material and says Section 52 of the Indian Copyright Act offers various avenues for fair use. “Most people presume that the copyright owner has the right to do anything and everything. You won't have copyright without fair dealing. And copyright is subject to fair dealing, not the other way around,” he adds.

Since the NCERT books are de facto standards across the country, the board is also extremely wary that distortions could creep in.

However, there is an aspirational element to the Internet. It is intrinsically more free and democratic than any real world institution. But even in the virtual realm, eternal vigilance is the price that has to be paid for the sake of freedom and open access.