Monday, July 5, 2010

Copyright - A continuation

I realise I went a bit overboard with this blog, but I had a lot of fun doing research and writing it. :)

The second theme on the copyright workshop on Thursday, the 24th of July, was The Copyright (Amendment) Bill and its implications for book publishing. A bill amending the copyright act has been introduced in Parliament in April 2010. The Alternative Law Forum submitted a detailed critique of an earlier draft of the bill to the Registrar of Copyrights. During the afternoon session, Lawrence Liang gave the audience an idea of the problems that copyright law entails and why amendment might be necessary.

The amendment to the copyright law has been long in coming. Music, film and publishing houses are all interested in copyright. The traditional copyright laws don’t work for everybody – after all, it is not enough to talk about publishers alone. The owners of music and FM radio went to the Supreme Court, fighting over music rights. Two international treaties (neither of which India is a part), WCT and WPPT were signed in 1996. In 2006, other submissions were made by universities, research organisations, etc, to amend the copyright law. The amendment of copyright is not necessarily an issue of big player versus small player. It is more along the lines of establishing who the author is, and in the case of film and music, if the definition of author includes the director. In any case, there is the ongoing debate for copyright between music companies and the FM radio, writers, film producers and television producers, visually impaired provisions and IPDS support.

This reminded me of a paper I had written a while back discussing the fault lines between art and copyright laws, where one must first address the question of what art is. Is art, merely the arranging of elements in such a way that it appeals to our aesthetic sense? Is something still considered to be art if someone worked upon some existing piece of art to create something new? Doesn’t the new piece become more creative and even more original, if one can call it that, by using music from different places and making something new out of it? The genre itself, of ‘mixed art’ is different from already existing genres, thereby making it more original. The cases filed against music companies, music groups and individuals based on sampling address these questions further. Sampling is the act of taking a sound recording from an already existing sound recording and re-using it to create a completely new sound. According to the copyright rules in USA, the sample must be so short and so insignificant that the average listener would not be able to identify or recognise the original composition from the sample taken. The time given for this was not longer than 15 seconds for musical recordings. For sound recordings, it was ruled that no matter how short the recording was, the sampler needed to get the permission of the original owner or not do the sample at all. The Beastie Boys case is famous for sampling. While they obtained permission ECM Records to use a six second sampling of ‘Choir’, the jazz flautist James Newton filed a case against the Beastie Boys saying that they should have obtained permission from him to use the portion of his composition (three notes) that was in the sampled recording. The Appeal Court over-ruled this, as for one, the sampled piece was too short and "so meagre and fragmentary that the average audience would not recognise the appropriation". ( When this is done across country borders, the question as to who owns what arises. A point I find highly unfair, with regard to sampling in the music industry, is that there are plenty of songs in the Kollywood and Bollywood film industries that have blatantly copied from the artists in America and other countries. It is hard to believe that all these songs, especially by artists like Beyonce and Shaggy have actually been licensed by the Tamil film industry. For, if production companies are angry about a few seconds of recordings being sampled, what would they do if they knew that entire songs were being ripped with absolutely no credit to them?

Liang also brought up another important question: what about software usage? JAWS (Job Access With Speech) , a software program for visually impaired users. There are two problems that users face – first, the licensed version of JAWS costs Rs 50,000/- and second, the books need to be converted to digital format so that JAWS can read it, which can happen only by violating copyright. The formats are specially designed for the blind and ordinary people cannot use it. As a result, not many people want to get permission to use the software.

In 1967, developing countries wanted less stringent copyright rules to improve the standard of their education, and developed countries did not agree to that. When you think about it, the developing countries did have a point. A simple example – the copyright laws prevents us from copying or xeroxing an entire book. Perhaps a few pages, or at the most, a few chapters are permitted. But think of the kind of books we need for our classes. As I have a background in culture studies, each essay we have in our syllabus is from a different book, and each book costs about $20. So while it would make sense for someone from USA or UK to buy the book, if we were to spend $20 per book (and there’ll be about 10 books) per subject (there are at least 5 of those), then, that’s easily $1000. Admittedly, $1000 per book for a student in USA or UK is cheaper than Rs. 50,000 that we in India would have to spend per semester, especially since Indian versions of the books aren’t always available and need to be shipped in from aborad. It is just easier on all of us to go to the library and take Xerox copies of only the chapters we need, which brings it down to Rs 500 per semester. And this, dear readers, is only the beginning. Ironically, according to the provision to the copyright law that was introduced in 1952, if you have the licensed copy of any published work, then you are entitled to make a digital copy of the work, which, once again, goes against copyright law. To make things even more complicated, apart from the normal copyright, there is special copyright of the author which includes right of paternity (authorship) and right of integrity, which means that no one else can use the material.

Copyright law, as we can see, has not just one but several loopholes, and the amendments to the laws (as discussed by Sarim Naved and SK Mohanty) ask more questions than answer them. The more we read the more questions we have, simply because there is no umbrella term that protects all. Copyright laws violated by companies like Cipla that try to provide life saving drugs at a lower rate to developing countries and by poor farmers sued by MNCs like Monsanto (for using their GM seeds) just add fuel to the already raging fire. What we need is for that empty space of ‘authorship’ and the ethics of copyright to be defined, so that everything else falls into place. But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?

Image Source: ted goff

If you want to read more about copyright laws or want access to previous blogposts, click here, here and here .


Post a Comment