I learnt to my dismay this week that of Oxford University Press’s superb ‘Themes in Indian history’ series, only three of 15 volumes are in print.
The other 12 volumes, featuring books like a history of Indian railways, trade and finance in colonial India, agricultural production and Indian history, are gone, perhaps forever.
We must keep this in mind when addressing the matter of Delhi University, whose students have called Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press “criminals”. These two publishers have filed a lawsuit seeking a ban on photocopying of their books. The publishers claim that a shop in the university hands out “course materials”, essentially photocopies of books that are recommended reading.
The students admit they do this, but refuse to buy the OUP and CUP books. They say they won’t unless the books are discounted for them by these publishers. According to a released statement, which has not yet been disowned, DU’s students and faculty want that a “strict warning be given to these criminal presses that they cannot get away with this sort of bullying and stifling of democratic student culture.”
I accept we have fallen as a nation, but when did copyright theft by the middle class become democratic culture? I am puzzled also by the demand that the publishers should subsidise the books. Let us compare the net price at which the book is sold in India with the net price (in brackets) at which the book is sold abroad.
Published by Cambridge University Press
Socio-religious reform movements in India by Kenneth Jones Rs 295 (Rs 3,150)
A social history of the Deccan by Richard Eaton Rs 626 (Rs 5,175)
The Marathas by Stewart Gordon Rs 150 (Rs 6,015)
The Sikhs of the Punjab by JS Grewal Rs 250 (Rs 5,484)
Published by Oxford University Press
Illustrating India by Jennifer Howes Rs 2,655 (Rs 11,883)
Jawaharlal Nehru by S Gopal Rs 2,025 (Rs 12,435)
Interpreting Mughal Painting by Som Prakash Verma Rs 535 (Rs 2,760)
Mughals and Franks by Sanjay Subrahmanyam Rs 338 (Rs 1,545)
I have listed these books because I bought them in the past few days. But it is true for most publishers. It is because of this that someone in India may be able to put together a library of some quality while paying mostly half – and often only a quarter – of what someone elsewhere might.
Anyone who actually pays for books regularly will know that India is one of the world’s best places to do this.
OUP and CUP have done outstanding service to India and, in particular, to Indian students. They have done this, first, by commissioning and publishing the finest studies of India and her culture. Histories unrivalled for quality, including those written in Indian languages. Secondly, they have subsidised Indians, and given us these works for less than they are worth and often many times less than others currently pay for them.
It is fine not to acknowledge their service (in my opinion Indians are particularly ungrateful), but it is indecent to call them criminals.
And then this threat is made:
“As a reaction, if this case is not revoked immediately, we students and faculty members have decided to boycott these three presses. We will actively ensure that no books of these three presses are used in the campus and will urge all teachers not to recommend any books or readings published by them. Instead we would work on other options of open sources and free dissemination of knowledge and urge other faculty and students to do the same.”
Why not go ahead? It addresses both the problem of poor students and the complaint of copyright theft. The fact is that it is an empty threat. There is no replacement. This business of ripping off someone’s life’s work is not free of cost to society. We have seen this in the sad disappearance of OUP’s ‘Themes in Indian history’ series.
When the colleges for whom these texts were written refuse to purchase them, not many amateur buyers can fill the gap.
We should view this reluctance to pay as part of an Indian continuity. The Pakistan newspapers in which I have been writing a column for some years cost Rs 20 per copy.
It is unthinkable for a newspaper to be priced thus in India, where most papers cost Rs 2 or Rs 3. Readers will pay no more than that. Most newspapers offer annual subscriptions for Rs 299 or Rs 199 or less. This means the cost of subscription is less than a rupee per copy. This is not because newsprint is cheaper in India. It’s the same price worldwide, and it costs the same to print a paper in Lahore as one in New Delhi. However, Indians will not pay more and would rather pay nothing at all for information and entertainment.
A second example of this. Classical music concerts in India are subsidised by corporate firms, because tickets are mostly free. Ticketed performances either suffer a loss or go unwatched.
It is not expected that students will show maturity in this matter of copyright theft. The history of India’s violent student actions show that they usually can be trusted to do the wrong thing. However, the faculty should distance themselves from this obscene attack. If it is true that there are not enough books in the library, a solution may be found in better facilities, or in middle-class students sharing their books with less fortunate classmates. DU’s alumni could step forward and make a contribution to its libraries.
To malign these publishers for defending themselves against theft is unfair and unjust.
Threatening to discard them is to kill the goose that’s laying for all of us golden eggs.