Photocopying the past

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Sep 02, 2011 01:25 PM |
There is no single correct position when it comes to intellectual property or IP. In fact, there are at least five correct positions that you could possibly adopt based on who you are — a pro-creator position, a pro-entrepreneur position, a pro-government position, a pro-consumer position and a public interest position.

Therefore, before you progress any further, dear reader, you have to first decide which of the above you are. If you are an average Indian, then you are almost certainly a consumer or a member of the general public. Next, it would only be fair for me to tell you when I am coming from: I work for a policy research organisation that focuses on protecting consumer and public interest in the digital era. Before I proceed any further, also note that not all creators prefer profits to public adulation and therefore creators’ interests are not necessarily always opposed to consumer and public interest.

At this point, popular imagination is captivated by meta-regulation, issues of corruption and transparency. Few seem interested in the configuration details of property regimes that we are all implicated in: tangible property, capital and, in our increasingly dematerialised world, intangible property such as IP or spectrum. Unfortunately the complications of spectrum, banking and IP make our eyes glaze over and there is almost zero attention being paid to the copyright act amendment to be discussed in Parliament this week.

For the government, achieving a compromise is the primary objective, and then, perhaps a distant second, raising taxes. This is not a static compromise, since each generation of new technologies precipitates a new round of negotiations between the stakeholders. So while it is easy to be Anna Hazare, it is difficult to be Kapil Sibal. An optimal compromise position as in the world of capital and tangible property protects the production, circulation and consumption of IP. A sub-optimal position results in practices that are in conflict with policy — anti-competitive behaviour or infringement.

Unfortunately when it comes to evidence-based policy-making, there is little funding for public interest IP research in India and the pockets of the lobbyists of rights-holders are deep. The funded research that they tout claims that government loses significant taxes because of piracy or non-maximalist IP policies. Yet rights-holders, especially multinationals in the software business, are experts at tax avoidance through techniques with names like the “Double Irish” and the “Dutch Sandwich”.

Like any compromise, the latest amendment is a mixed bag for consumers and the general public. With regard to “digital rights management,” — or what consumers’ advocates refer to as “digital restrictions management” — the government has yielded to the TRIPS-plus agenda even though it is not a signatory to the WIPO Internet treaties. And with regard to the exception for the disabled, the Indian exception is both disability- and works-neutral making it much more robust when compared to the treaty for the visually impaired currently being discussed at the WIPO.

However, one particular compromise — the volte-face on Section 2 (m) on parallel imports of books — is particularly distressing for book-lovers and students. As part of the latest amendment, this new section was introduced in 2009. The standing committee report gave the section a thumbs-up, but strangely it has gone missing in the latest version of the bill circulated to the MPs in preparation for the Rajya Sabha debate this Friday.

Section 2 (m) is a provision that would have saved us from the uncertainty created by what some consider flawed jurisprudence around parallel importation of copyrighted works. As the standing committee report on the copyright amendment puts it, “nobody can deny the fact that the interests of students will be best protected if they have access to the latest editions of the books.” To date, I have never met an IIT or IIM graduate untainted by photocopied books. I would claim that the lack of quality education in our country is still at the level of an epidemic. The indigenous publication industry has benefited from our progressive copyright regime.

Wouldn’t it be appropriate to afford them maximum flexibility in a future rife with technological shifts? Are all the books that you wish to read available in the libraries and book shops you have access to? Have you ever been forced to photocopy a book because of time constraints? Would you like to see greater choice via increased free-market competition, and reduced state-sanctioned monopolies and enforcement? Does your definition of human rights include the “right to education” and the the “right to entertainment”? Shouldn’t the disabled in India benefit from the $500 million spent each year making books accessible in the US? And finally, shouldn’t a nation providing leadership to the development agenda at WIPO, walk the talk at home? If your answer to any of these questions is yes, you should demand that people are placed before the profits of foreign publishers.

This article by Sunil Abraham, Executive Director, Centre for Internet and Society was published in the Indian Express on 2 September 2011 in the Indian Express. Please read the original article here.