The Business Standard column: Copyright, copywrong?

(Published in the Business Standard, June 1, 2010)

The fantasy of any Indian reader who’s travelled to countries with bigger and better bookstores is simple: we want to be able to buy the books we love when they come out.
Many great books, especially histories, biographies, science writing and world literature/ poetry/ drama in translation will never be stocked in Indian bookshops. Many will come in after six-eight months, or will be prohibitively expensive, or will be stocked in limited copies.

For readers, one way around this is to order online or invest in an e-reader, but that’s still restrictive—you lose out on the serendipity of browsing, the accidental happiness of stumbling across books you didn’t know you wanted. (And as reader Meethil Momayya pointed out in an email, e-books are still subject to territorial agreements.)

From that perspective, the amendments proposed to the Indian Copyright Act might seem like a great idea. The core principle underlying the amendments applies equally to the Internet, digital media, film and broadcasting, and print publishing. Open up the markets, allow books, films and other media to move freely across countries, and give the Indian consumer and reader a much wider choice. So why is Indian publishing unhappy about this, and how is the Indian Copyright Act set to change the way you read?

The publishing perspective: Thomas Abraham, CEO, Hachette India, is blunt: “This will change the face of Indian publishing completely, and disastrously. The worst hit will be the publishers.” His logic, echoed by HarperCollins’ P N Sukumar and Krishan Chopra, is simple. The Act would do away, in effect, with the idea of an Indian “territory”—allowing books to be freely imported, and in the worst case, dumped, in the Indian market. For publishers, the incentive to promote an author or invest in his work in India disappears—if you know that anyone can print and sell copies of the book your publishing house has worked to produce.

Most glaringly, the “open market” is not reciprocal: while US and UK printers could, theoretically, flood the Indian markets with reprints of popular books, copyright agreements in those territories still hold, and Indian publishing cannot do the same. In the long run, this could kill or seriously cripple Indian publishing.

The author’s perspective: While the initial response from authors on the easing of markets is bound to be positive, will they get paid? As happened with the music industry, authors might find that their sales and audiences rise—but they’re not getting royalties on those editions. In a worst-case scenario, if the Act goes through in its present form and the doomsayers are right, the apparent freedoms authors might gain from the easing of copyright restrictions would be offset by the loss of local publishing support. And again, as with the music industry, for authors to gain, they would have to be willing to create book groups, nurture audiences and do much of their spadework. None of this infrastructure exists in India at present.

The reader’s perspective: Gautam Padmanabhan, CEO of Westland, offers a balanced take. “This is terrible for publishers,” he says. “But readers and retail want more choice and this could offer them more freedom—even at the basic level of being able to buy different editions of the same book.”

The biggest question—unanswered because the Copyright Act is geared far more strongly to the needs of the digital and film worlds, than to the complex and competing needs of print—is how this will work in practice. This could be like the Chinese toy revolution: the insidious replacement of local Indian products with cheaper, more disposable alternatives. Many readers couldn’t care less, so long as they have more and better books to read.

But the other argument is blunt, if protectionist: if you want a thriving Indian publishing industry, flooding the market with cheaper editions of books will kill off the publisher’s incentive to support and nurture authors. This could work if markets were open in the other direction as well—if a reciprocal arrangement allowed Indian publishers to ship their editions of US and UK-produced books into those markets—but there is no way the US and the UK would allow that kind of competition.

Like most Indian readers, I want more choice, and better books; and I don’t want to have to wait months to buy my favourite authors. But however well-intentioned, if the practical implications of the Copyright Act would be to cripple local publishing, that’s bad for readers—and terrible for authors. What works for digital industries and films might have entirely the opposite effect on the publishing world, and it’s not a gamble Indian publishing can afford to lose.






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