How a copyright amendment might change the way we read, write and publish in India.
Call this the war of the slogans. On one side, copyright lawyers and the Ministry of Human Resource Development offer the lure of cheaper books for Indian readers. On the other, publishers and authors speak of the death of Indian publishing as we know it.
Section 2(m), a proposed amendment to India’s copyright law that would allow the parallel import of books, is a dry piece of legalese, but it’s sparked a blog war, a flurry of publisher white papers, and a wide debate on copyright and territory.
The rationale is a legally sound one — to align Indian copyright law with Indian patent and trademark law, both of which follow the principle of “international exhaustion”: once a product has been legitimately sold, that product can be resold anywhere in the world without the consent of the owner of the copyright, be that the author or the publisher.
According to the Association of Publishers of India, “This proviso would mean that books published in any country could be freely made available and sold in India, without this amounting to infringement of copyright.”
Theoretically, parallel imports would allow a publisher or a printer who does not hold copyright to an Indian edition of a book to print his or her own editions of the book, under certain conditions, and release them back into the Indian market. There is also a fear among publishers that this might lead to widespread “dumping”, where the market is flooded with cheap, remaindered books.”
When this applies to books, specifically, one side argues that allowing “parallel imports” of books would open up the Indian publishing market to competition and would allow readers access to cheaper books. The other side argues that authors and publishers would suffer, and that in the long run, so would the reader. Thomas Abraham, managing director, Hachette India, states his position succinctly: “This would be the death of publishing and writing as we know it in India — and ironically by a surfeit of books.”
Step back from the rhetoric and the very complex issues involved about the intricacies of copyright law, territoriality in publishing, the book remainders market and book dumping, and here’s how the amendment is likely to affect readers, authors, publishers and booksellers.
Perhaps the sharpest summary comes from Landmark Bookstore’s Madhu Mohan: “As booksellers, we want to give our customers a wider range at a lower price. An open market immediately affords both: the cost of this is that publishers with Indian market rights might suffer. The more significantly affected parties are authors, publishers and readers. If, arguably, territorial rights are not sold, authors might earn lower advances. Publishers who have paid for territorial rights, are not able to get the full benefit of their monies. Readers should welcome the change, because at the outset they will get lower priced books.”
His view is echoed across the bookselling industry, with reactions ranging from indifference to the possible repercussions to cautious alarm — for many booksellers, a weak or damaged Indian publishing industry is also a negative.
Almost all booksellers agree that the short-term benefits of allowing parallel imports would be to lower the price of books. India already has among the lowest-priced English language books in the world, but it would be interesting to see if even lower prices reeled in a different kind of reader. As Mohan points out, book imports would be cheaper; books published in India by Indian or foreign authors would be adversely affected. The long-term scenario is another matter; if the Indian publishing industry is hit hard, we could be flooded with cheap, low-quality remainders, or lose price benefits in the long run.
For authors, what’s key about the 2(m) amendment is the way in which it would affect the writer’s copyright over his/ her work — and also the shifts it might bring about in the industry in general. Copyright lawyer Nandita Saikia observes that once a publisher effectively loses control over an edition of a book — if competing editions are allowed into the market — “This would significantly diminish the ability of publishers to invest in Indian authors and Indian writing.” From Abraham at Hachette to Chiki Sarkar at Random House to Tata McGraw Hill, there seems to be consensus on this aspect of the amendment.
In contrast, Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society argues strongly in favour of 2(m) and dismantling the “licence raj” that requires booksellers and distributors to have authorisation to import books: “Allowing people to import goods without permissions (with appropriate duties) is taken for granted in all other areas, so why not copyrighted works? After all, it is not the act of publication that gets affected, but the right of exclusive distribution.”
But many authors point out that publishing and bookselling operate differently from other industries, and the dynamics of writing and bookselling are not comparable. Author Amit Varma puts forward the writer’s objections: “As the author of a book, I should have the right to assign the rights to sell my book to any publisher in India that I feel like, and the law should protect that right, and my contract with the publisher. Parallel import obviously makes a mockery of that right, and can deny me significant potential royalties.”
At Penguin India, Andrew Phillips is blunt: “We stand firmly against the amendment. Penguin is both a ‘foreign’ publisher and an Indian publisher and we believe it will affect both parts of our business. We don’t believe the effects will be minor — to the contrary, this would have a fundamental impact on the publishing business both for international authors and Indian authors who aspire to be read outside India.”
The publishers’ arguments are complex, but stripped of the technicalities, they rest on the question of territoriality. When publishing worldwide operates on the basis of territorial agreements — authors sell rights to their works for specific regions — opening up the market unilaterally makes little sense. India might open its market, via 2(m), to competing imports and editions; but Indian publishers don’t have the right to sell similar editions of books in the UK or US markets.
In other words, the market would open up only in one direction — and this could diminish Indian publishers’ ability to nurture new writing, release Indian editions of foreign authors, and pay authors significant royalties.
Behind the rhetoric, nothing about this proposed change in copyright laws is simple, and the repercussions for authors and publishers are likely to be both significant and adverse. There’s an interesting parallel in the Australian market, which, like the Indian publishing industry, is thriving but relatively young, and lacks the clout of the formidable US, UK and European markets.
Two years ago, when the move to allow parallel imports of books was discussed in Australia, that discussion was fierce, impassioned and hotly contested. Nor was it limited to the industry; when readers realised that the debate was really over what they would get to read, which authors would benefit or lose out, and how this would impact their intellectual lives, the debate went public.
In the case of Australia, it took a full year of discussion before it was finally decided not to introduce parallel imports for the publishing industry. Whatever the possible adverse effects — or benefits — of parallel imports, we haven’t had that discussion yet in India. It’s a necessary one, and it affects anybody equipped with a mind, a wallet and the ability to walk into a bookstore. This would be a good time to have it, before the law is set in stone.