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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: The piracy epidemic

Sunanda K Datta-Ray  |  New Delhi 

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India has some highly-reputable professional publishers whose ethics and expertise compare with the best in the world. But the exceptions give the industry a bad name and justify serious doubts about the Federation of Indian Publishers’ demand for a protective wall. That might keep out foreign rivals but would leave Indian readers and writers at the mercy of predators.

Recently, for instance, a friend e-mailed me from Gangtok to say that my on Sikkim, published 25 years ago and long out of print, is “very much in the market”. This is the third time I have received news of such piracy. First, it was Kathmandu; then, two years ago, Darjeeling.

I am in distinguished company. Only the other day a new but tatty copy of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger was thrust through my taxi window. The printed price was Rs 395. The hawker asked for Rs 200 but accepted half. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things was also widely pirated. Perhaps we are not as bad as our next door neighbour where even government agencies like the Bangla Academy translate and reprint important students’ reference and textbooks without bothering with the permission of authors or original publishers. But conditions here are bad enough. Some authors complain that many more copies are printed and sold than the publisher acknowledges. Others don’t receive timely, comprehensive or convincing royalty statements. Payment is the perennial problem.

The fate of my on India-US relations still baffles me. There was no launch, no publicity, but I did initially receive both statement and payment. After that, the disappeared from view, not even surfacing at that publishing mecca, the Calcutta Fair. Friends from all over the country reported that booksellers thought it had sold out and was out of print since the publisher didn’t respond to their requests for stock. I was delighted until I received a letter from the publisher saying the hadn’t sold well and would be pulped. I could buy copies at a discount. That wasn’t the end. Some months later I was asked to refund a few hundred rupees that had, apparently, been paid in excess of royalty on sales.

Journalists are especially vulnerable. I sell an article to a paper in, say, Paris, and find it popping up in a Los Angeles publication. When I used to write for the Observer in London, the foreign editor warned me that some Asian publications that bought reproduction rights dispensed with the obligatory OFNS (Observer Foreign News Service) at the end of each article. “They drop the letters and pretend that all our writers are on their staff!” Vanity wasn’t the only motive: Many of those who reprinted Observer material didn’t pay at all.

Leaving aside the travails of freelance journalists, piracy is a poor country phenomenon, most rampant in South America and Asia. In India where more than 80,000 titles are released annually, an education ministry survey indicates three kinds of forgery. Selling bogus copies (as of my Sikkim book) is the commonest. There are also clumsy local imitations of works by famous authors (a friend is convinced that some of the Frederick Forsyth thrillers he reads would have surprised Forsyth), and illegal translations of bestsellers.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance which runs anti-piracy campaigns in India, Pakistan, China and Turkey should extend operations to Latin America where pirated books cost three to five times less than normal books. The Inter-American Publishers’ Group assesses Latin America’s clandestine industry (50 billion pages annually) at $8 billion against the legal $5 billion turnover in Latin America and Spain. of even Checkmate by Colombia’s respected national police chief, Rosso José Serrano, were Thanks to improved technology, design, cover, colour, bar code and even — shamelessly — the “reproduction is forbidden” notice are easily reproduced.

Pirates sometimes serve a public purpose, as in Calcutta when the academic year started without West Bengal’s Board of Secondary Education producing textbooks. The underground swung into action and reaped a rich harvest. But students’ relief was shortlived — the euphemistically called “local editions” included chapters that the curriculum had expunged.

Elephants were commissioned once to crush pirated CDs in Nehru Place. But the police and law courts are the only remedies for pirated books. That doesn’t offer solace to authors until publishers organise themselves more ethically. Even then, there would be no reason for acceding to the demand for a closed market. Quality and service will never improve without competition.  

First Published: Sat, March 28 2009. 00:37 IST