One of the very few regrets I harbour about my journalism career is that I did not have the foresight to be in the Delhi High Court in 1996, when the case of Raja Pocket Books vs Radha Pocket Books was heard in front of their learned Lordships.
Raja Pocket Books were the publishers of Nagraj, a comic book featuring, "a character … attired in a green coloured body stocking giving the impression of serpentine skin and red trunks with a belt, which appears to be a snake". Nagraj's adventures had sold approximately 1,521,500 copies across the Hindi heartland, but here was Radha Pocket Books trying to cash in by creating their own serpentine hero, Nagesh.
The defendant argued that everybody had a right to depict serpentine characters in green colour; the plaintiff swayed the judge by saying, aha, but the heroes were the same, down to the number of scales - and the ripped gauntlets. As their learned Lordships observed, finding for the plaintiff, this was a clear case of attempted copyright violation: Nagesh and Nagraj could both hurl snakes with one hand, scale walls, and, most telling, "Both, when bites, the object melts like a wax".
By the 2000s, piracy had changed across all kinds of language publishing in India. In 2003, Harry Potter's publishers successfully sued Uttam Ghosh, preventing him from introducing a character called Jhontu in a sub-series where Harry Potter goes to Calcutta, a work of fan fiction if there ever was one. But they were less successful in stopping the number of pirated translations of the Potter books from English to Bengali. Book pirates in China had stayed ahead of the curve, by passing off a weird little book called Harry Potter and Bao Zoulong as a new Potter sequel. In this version, Harry Potter became a leading character in a translation of The Hobbit, with an explanatory paragraph to tell the reader how Harry Potter was turned into a hobbit one day while taking a bath.
The first book pirate I met was a printer from Ludhiana who had set up a small printing house in Noida near Delhi. Leaving his office, I took the wrong turn and walked into a building that housed another printing press. The books wrapped in neat bundles seemed very familiar. I was surprised at the range of publishers represented. "You print books for x and y, too?" I said, naming a very large textbook publisher and a highly respected trade publishing house. The man said yes, no, yesno, and ushered me out of there muttering, "Special order." It was much later, looking at the rows of pirated bestsellers at the traffic lights that it clicked: I had met one of the many suppliers of purloined purple prose who make a fat profit from illegally printing and selling bestsellers.
There was nothing unusual about his operation: the book piracy trade in India is inviting for middlemen, but the bulk of it is far larger and better organised. Publishers Weekly estimates that Indian pirates cost the global publishing industry about $36 million a year; we are among the largest book piracy centres in Asia.
The book pirates always get it right: they anoint a few (and only a few) literary writers (Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Seth), they know when the market shifts from an obsession with The Secret to books by Indian authors on diets. They also know how much the market will stand: the classic story about Chetan Bhagat's success is that the pirates were selling copies of his first book at Rs 150/- when the retail price was Rs 95/- but they still had takers.
The disappearance of the Srishti bestsellers - cheap, Rs 99 paperbacks that had taken the pulp fiction world by storm - from the ranks of pirated books is an indicator that the market for books like Oh Sh*t Not Again or I Am Broke! Love Me is cooling, with better pulp options available.
The book pirate trade in India is as efficient as the hawala market, with its own peculiar systems and rituals. Those who sell the books on the streets and at the traffic lights have no idea where the pirated stock comes from; they pick up their stock from vendors. Some vendors speak of receiving tokens to pick up parcels at the railway station offices; some pirates use a perpetually changing set of courier offices.
Most book pirates have much better market research than most publishers in India. One of the larger pirates - the trade is shifting into the hands of a few large operators who run networks of illegal printers and vendors around the country - gets his news by tracking over 600 distributors and printing presses across the North of India. His charts rate textbook publishers and trade publishers by their track record of bestsellers over a 10-year period. He prefers to use printers whose chief product is religious books, because the police are reluctant to raid those presses.
As piracy evolves, the book pirates increasingly have access to print technologies that allow them to do their own printing. There are urgent fears that as offset printing of US books shifts to India, among other markets, piracy of books in this segment will boom. The piracy trade and the printing trade are intertwined; publishers try to protect themselves by working only with trusted printers, but once a book's out, it's fair game for the pirates.
Though what we see are the popular, pirated bestsellers, those make up a small sliver of the piracy market. This could change as offset printing becomes the norm across Asia. When you see the scale of the trade, it's like seeing small-time miners give way to large, illegal strip-mining operations - the damage to the publishing environment is massive. The romantic view of piracy is that it keeps books and authors in circulation; in practice, only a handful of authors are gainers.
I'd love to see a study of book piracy in India and Asia that focused on readers for a change; it might help us see more clearly where there's an appetite for books. The one thing that pirates have that publishers don't is a map of book hunger - but they aren't sharing.