Guest Post by Apoorva Gautam
In August 2012, three international publishers- Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis, filed a case in the High Court of Delhi, claiming damages to the tune of 60 lac rupees from Rameshwari photocopy shop (in the premises of Delhi School of Economics) and the University of Delhi. In what came to be commonly known as the DU Photocopy case, the publishers had claimed that by producing reading bundles (or coursepacks) which are various readings of a course put together, the photocopy shop was causing them to suffer damages and that this activity constituted infringement of the copyright of the publishers. They further claimed that the University was also liable in the case as it had allowed this ‘illegal’ activity to flourish. The publishers had already admitted to this case being a test-case for them. Through it, they wished to impose licensing regimes in Indian universities.
A spontaneous students’ campaign by the name of Save DU Photocopy Shop, against this move of the publishers, tried to pressurize the university to support the photocopy shop in the legal battle. Seeing the university’s laidback attitude to the case and understanding the deep implications this case held for the students, the campaign formalized itself into Association of Students for Equitable Access to Knowledge (ASEAK). The association was made a party to the legal case in March, 2013. In March, 2017, the publishers withdrew their case after two consecutive judgments’ in the High Court which took on the arguments made by the defense parties, including ASEAK, very positively. Not only has this withdrawal reinstated our faith in what committed and spirited struggles can achieve, it has also taken us through the complexities of academic publishing, copyright laws and institutions of higher education. These complex relations deserve much more attention so that more open and equitable ecosystems of knowledge production and dissemination can be built.
On the legal front, the students’ case rested on the exceptions within the Copyright Act, which exempted reproduction for the purposes of teaching and learning from the purview of copyright laws. The fact that the legislature had kept this exception within the law indicated a fillip for higher education, where the importance of wide dissemination is acknowledged. At any rate we are talking about a system of higher education which is severely broken and where the public university is struggling to survive (against financial shortages and political attacks). In a situation of lack of resources, photocopying is a quick fix solution. And for the three publishers, even this quick fix is a potential revenue source that they wanted to tap into. By getting licensing systems put in place, the publishers wanted a piece of profit from photocopying as well.
While this legal battle has been won by the students and academics who went to court to fight this out, the issue that needs much more reflection on our part is the system of academic knowledge production. Working on this case, we got a chance to think more pointedly about how we are in this situation where work produced by academics who are based out of public universities ends up becoming the property of a private corporation. At the heart of this issue is the public university- an institution that runs on taxpayers’ money and students’ fees. Academics who produce books do so as the salaries and grants provided by the university, the library and other resources and the space of classroom teaching enable it. Any academic book’s acknowledgement page reveals this. So how does this publicly produced knowledge become the property of a corporation which then claims copyright over it? The director of the Harvard library, Robert Darnton, puts this succinctly, “We all face the same paradox. We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”
The context of this statement was the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council stating, in 2012, that several of their library journal subscriptions were becoming unaffordable. Faculty was further encouraged to go for open access publishing that does not hide research behind paywalls. This should be taken as a moment to look for alternative systems of dissemination that do not end up having near-monopolistic control. I would even go as far as saying that while the market for academic publishers surely exists, but it must remain outside the gates of the university. It is the circulation of an academic work within the university that gives it ‘prestige’, and it is curious that the whole equation is now being turned around. Knowledge production and dissemination in universities must be seen as a public good. While on the one hand we have technological advances increasing access to academic work, we also have nervous academic publishers trying to put licensing systems, filing lawsuits and trying harder than ever to control precisely this democratization. Which way this struggle goes depends very importantly on us.
(Apoorva Gautam is President, Association of Students for Equitable Access to Knowledge and works at BDS National Committee )