Updated: Feb 4, 2020
*This article appeared in the magazine 'Live Encounters': https://liveencounters.net/january-2014/12-december/volume-three/vivek-mehra-impact-of-piracy-in-publishing/
Publishers have something tangible to lose with piracy. Authors and other types of content creators also have something tangible to lose. But one has rarely investigated the degradation of thought process and the loss of culture, heritage and most of all, human value.
Perhaps my argument sounds far-fetched and when I began thinking along these lines, I tended to dismiss the conclusions I seemed to be arriving at. The arguments can be extended to the entire developing world, particularly in nations that are struggling to rise above poverty. I will however choose India and include Bangladesh and Pakistan since they too were part of undivided India.
Piracy is simply defined as taking without permission or consent. The word pirate conjures up images of the high seas and swashbuckling tobacco-chewing sailors; both fighting for goods that were being ‘unlawfully’ seized. But in publishing the image of a ‘pirate’ is obscure. It changes with geographies and it changes with content.
Piracy doesn’t begin in factories or printing presses. Piracy actually begins at home and in schools. Before the digital age and when I was going to school, I remember being asked to create collages around themes. A favourite one in the 70s was on poverty. I remember as far as the 7th Standard and later being asked to use specific magazines to cut articles, pictures and other relevant materials. Each of us had to provide a list of the magazines and newspaper we used. Many times we were told the names of specific publications simply because the focus was on the research and NOT on the artistic value. This simple act addressed two clear points that go into the making of EVERY copyright law on this planet. The first is acknowledging the source of the material and the second is clarifying the use of the material. I don’t need to talk about projects today; schools don’t care how it’s done.
So where and how did the thinking change?
Poverty and all its cousins (read low income, et al) change life’s priorities. As a nation, the priorities are divided between protecting borders and feeding citizens. India didn’t and continues not to tax books. But the deficit between its domestic consumption and domestic production has only widened as population has grown. This gave rise to scarcity of everything. Scarcity brought price rises and price rises brought piracy. As a society we started changing only for the worse. Families prioritised spending based on essential need. Nurturing was secondary. A typical household spent most of the money on food followed by clothing, then came education and finally housing.
Education was important but NEVER a necessity. It was common to see children of rich families drop out of high school or college to join the ‘family business’. I remember growing up hearing “the educated work for the rich”. It is in this mind-set that piracy started settling in. Those who wanted the education struggled to afford it. The government spent money on building institutions but corruption ensured libraries were stocked with remaindered goods. Quality was sacrificed on the altar of price without even a second glance.
The 60s through to the 80s abounded with tales of individuals who ‘studied under lamp posts or candle light’ to get an education. They then went on to succeed in life. But piracy played a big part in that education being acquired. Since most couldn’t afford textbooks, pirated versions or much worse ‘guides’ surfaced. Pirated versions were easy to spot. The covers were close to the original, the paper was cheaper and the price far lower than the original. But the ‘guides’ were even more dangerous. Authors or rather writers, simply reworded portions of the original and came out with ‘originals’ at a fraction of the true cost. Individuals who used these versions imbibed a false notion that they were doing nothing wrong. Their objectives were noble and that is all that mattered. This mind-set then manifested elsewhere and continues to do so. From a minor disregard to copyright stems the disregard to basic law.
Drive on the streets and you can see every motor law being flouted with abject impunity. It is now “OK” to jump a red light when there is no policeman around. It is “OK” not to wear seat belts if there is a slim chance of being caught. It is “OK” to hang the helmet on the bike because policemen will not be stationed on the route one is travelling. And worst of all, it is “OK” to break the law and then fight with an individual who is actually obeying the law.
The menace doesn’t stop there. As a society we are “OK” with ignoring other laws. We are “OK” with expanding commercial space, or even constructing an extra floor knowing fully well, a little ‘greasing’ is all that’s needed. In so many facets of life we don’t even give corruption and bribery a second thought.
As a nation and as a species we have become “OK” with protecting ourselves at the cost of a fellow human being. And yes, it starts with a pirated book or guide or publication that no one ever talked about. A parent patted the child on the back for spending less and the child reinforced the notion that nothing was wrong.
Piracy impacts the growth of the nation. For once forget the actual revenue loss. The loss to the nation is larger than the loss to the exchequer. A Bengali book published in Kolkata is pirated in about 48 hours across the border. While Bangladesh has an impressive record on many indicators including health care, on piracy it is one of the worst offenders. It is true they don’t figure in any primary research but in publishing circles this is a well-known fact. Undivided Bengal has a rich cultural heritage. In fact the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize in literature came from Bengal (Rabindranath Tagore). But since Independence Bangladesh doesn’t have any literature to talk about. It’s true the nation is very young but in a young nation, its culture holds the societal fabric intact. Bangladeshi writers prefer publishing abroad at the cost of native Bengali writing.
The publishing industry in Bangladesh is nothing more than a series of photocopying shops. The objective is NOT to criticise Bangladesh or the publishing industry there. It is more to instil a sense of pride. They have a great cultural heritage and I know there are thought leaders, cultural stalwarts and great writers lying dormant in Bangladesh. It’s the society through the government that needs to create an environment to nurture literature. As a publisher I am aware about the level of piracy.
As a citizen of the world I know the cost of losing cultural heritage is bigger than the monetary loss I might face. There isn’t a single case of piracy that we have filed in Bangladesh. Through various international programs we provide content for free to educational institutions. True awakening will happen only when they become aware of the damage that they are doing to themselves.
There is another element that profits from piracy and uses the gain to damage society even further.
Ask law keepers in India – pursuing pirates (read printing presses, or distributors) is low on their priority. They believe organised crime, murderers, terrorists, thieves, etc. are far more important and they are. What is sad is that the same law keepers can’t see book and digital piracy as linked to organised crime.
Here is how this works—India like many Asian countries doesn’t tax books and other types of print publications. The business therefore is rarely tracked. While printing presses and printing business are easy to identify, distribution is virtually invisible. So every time a young lad is selling a pirated book on a traffic crossing, who is funding this enterprise? Leave the cities and venture into smaller towns, railway stations, bus stands and even local markets flooded with pirated books. Someone is profiting from this.
There isn’t hard data but the scale of the operation points towards organised crime. Here are things that make this lucrative for organised crime. 1. This business is completely transacted in cash. 2. Margins are in excess of 100% of cash invested. 3. There are no laws governing storage or transportation. 4. The product line is viewed positively (as opposed to liquor and or tobacco). 5. No one really objects to sales, distribution and consumption.
When we talk about publishing we primarily talk about English language publishing. But there are more Indian language literate individuals across India, Nepal, Pakistan and even outside the sub-continent. Within South Asia there are sufficiently open trade routes for printed material to move (Bangladesh has some restrictions). It’s scary to think that with an innocent act of purchasing pirated books, an individual is contributing to organised crime, some of it even leading to funding terrorists.
We don’t need laws and law enforcement. We first need awareness. I am sure someone reading this article might think I am seeing ghosts where there are none. The question to ask oneself is, am I really seeing ghosts? Take a hard look around you. People guard encroached space more than they guard their own homes. We have scant regard for traffic lights and other laws even as basic as those governing hygiene. The digital age has made even publishing houses and educational institutions turn a blind eye on copyright violation. We are truly eroding the very fabric that is holding us together.
The need of the hour is not about paying for content or to acquire rights to use it. There are sufficient laws to assist that. We need to teach the next generation to act responsibly.
Acknowledging where the content in use has been taken from will help bring about a change in the way we think. Schools must pledge not to use copyrighted material without permission. I can assure you publishing houses would gladly give permission freely, just to be acknowledged as the source from where the content originated.
At the end of it all, it is up to us as citizens of this global village to understand the consequences of our actions. Do we really want to leave a world built on lies and on the works of an unknown few?
Would we sit quiet if it were our own work?
I think the answers are for each one of us to decipher.