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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 13

Inevitability of Copyright Law?

Sunday 16 March 2008, by G Narasimha Raghavan



The Copy/South Dossier: Issues in the Economics, Politics and Ideology of Copyright in the Global South edited by Alan Story, Colin Darch and Debora Halbert; The Copy/South Research Group; Kent; 2006.

Theological affiliations apart, Mark Twain’s statement—“only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law in the planet”—is too tempting to be refuted, especially for the global South. If not, how can one make sense of most nations’ copyright periods extending to 50 or 70 years after the death of the author, when the harbinger of copyright, the Statute of Anne, awarded at the most 14 years of copyright protection after publication? This is one among the torrent of questions that The Copy/South Dossier raises. The Dossier, a joint effort of number of academics and information activists, “seeks to provide backing to the argument that copyright laws imposed upon the global South have had, and will continue to have, a negative impact”. Without mincing words, the editors’ predilection for the global South only adds value to the dossier in terms of its research commitment and accomplishment. With 50 odd papers written by leading academics and information activists, it has been no mean task for editors, Alan Story, Colin Darch and Debora Halbert, to put them together and give them a standardised dealing. The most important aspect of this Dossier, next only to its appealing content, is the argumentative style and analytical approach.

The next consistent question would be to ask: why South? The global South (Asia, Africa, and Latin America, mostly) at the one end has been obliterated from any meaningful discussion on the impact of international intellectual property rights regimes on it, and at the other end, it is the South that has been bearing the brunt of a global Copyright system, which has brought up the difficulty of understanding the rationale behind the facets of access to information versus payment for information predicament. Though the statement that the contemporary IPR regime itself is a superimposition on an otherwise ‘free sharing of information’ society can be warded off as standard fare, it is, nevertheless, essential to take cognisance of the incompatibility of West-mooted IP laws, lest it become a taken-for-granted part of the South. This makes resistance to the regime all the more crucial.

It is not without reason that the Orient and the Middle East are considered pioneers in fields like Mathematics, Astronomy or Surgery. The unconvincing stance of the copyright system seeks to replace this ‘culture of sharing’ with globalisa-tion’s upshot of a ‘culture of monopolisation and privatisation’. The political orchestration of the powers that be, behind such discourteous operations can hardly be concealed. This has had many a repercussion:
- • Preventing free speech
- • Impeding cultural exchange and production of knowledge
- • Unwarranted control of channels of communi-cation (media).

A semantic analysis of the word ‘piracy’, very often attributed to copyright infringers, does not attempt to capture the reality of breach, but rather attempts to inflict a pessimistic shade to the act, reminiscent of anarchic hooliganism. The currency the term ‘copyright pirates’ has gained, reminds one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter—only too obvious and at once disgusting. To accentuate the South’s anti-copyright attitude, piracy figures are churned out en masse. No economic logic exists behind the statistics on piracy, and its superfluous coverage in the media is only an act to secure “unwarranted authenticity” and support.

Besides questioning the validity of the data, the Dossier raises a slew of fundamental issues:
- • Who should decide how much of a book can be photocopied? Or even, whether a publication can be photocopied at all?
- • Why copyright in reality does not induce newer publications, but smothers innovation?
- • Must access to information be the casualty in the digital era? (Visit
- • Can copyright protection safeguard traditional knowledge?
- • Should ‘commodification of culture’ be allowed despite the commercial gains for indigenous communities?
- • How appropriate is treating copyright infringement as an act of crime?
These and other value-loaded issues confront the reader and it is impossible to passively read the Dossier.

The overarching themes of the Dossier are in questioning the ideology/philosophy of copyright, its universal applicability and its manifestations in the global South. Apparently, the core argument spotlights the concern of inevitability of copyright law. The alternatives to the copyright regime suggested include the prominent Creative Commons licence or even the less known Waitangi Trubunal of New Zealand. There is enough for readers to contemplate on the alternatives hinted at—either within copyright law, outside it or even through it. It must be realised that recognising that there is a problem in the South because of copyright law doesn’t make one feel any better, unless the causes are delineated, which the dossier discharges. However, providing a solution is another dimension of the discourse, which is beyond the agenda of the Dossier. If a reader is disappointed that the dossier does not ‘give’ a solution, but plainly ‘suggests’ alternatives, it is time to remember Marc Bloch’s insightful statement that “…there are times when for once the formulations of problems is more urgent than solutions…”. This, the Dossier achieves.

The reviewer is a Ph.D. candidate, Department of Economics, PSG College of Arts and Science, Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu).

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