The Copyright Fight

A battle over copyright unfolds around one man and his shop

Publishers are claiming Rs6 million in damages from Shyam Singh’s Rameshwari Photocopy Service and the University of Delhi. MANAS ROSHAN FOR THE CARAVAN
01 October, 2012

SHYAM SINGH SAT AMIDST HIS COPY MACHINES, distractedly reading the day’s newspapers. Every now and then he looked up to speak to his shop assistants—guiding them on a small order, instructing them to return a bit of change. In his corner shop next to the canteen of the Delhi School of Economics, students were no longer rushing in and out, crowding Singh’s table with books and sheaves of paper. Since August, business at Rameshwari Photocopy Service has been slow.

Seventy four-year-old Singh is the unlikely centre of a storm that is blowing through the Indian academic publishing industry. On 14 August, publishers Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor & Francis, filed a suit against Singh’s shop and the University of Delhi. They claim that his photocopied coursepacks—bound collections of course material—are in violation of The Copyright Act, 1957, specifically Section 14 (a), which gives the holders of the copyright exclusive rights over reproduction of material. The petition also demands Rs6 million in damages. The Delhi High Court has temporarily put a stop to the reproduction of the copyrighted texts. The first brief hearing was held on 27 August and the next was scheduled for the end of September. Singh, it appears, has a long struggle with the law ahead of him, in a case that has far-reaching implications for publishing and access to knowledge in the country.

Support for Singh gathered quickly: following the court summons, an online petition against the case was circulated, publicised through a Facebook campaign. The New Socialist Initiative, a Left collective active at the university, circulated pamphlets in support of the photocopiers and approached Lawrence Liang of the Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum (ALF), an expert on the politics of copyright, for assistance. The NSI and the ALF, whose lawyers are advising Singh on the case, also organised a seminar on copyright in Delhi early in September. At the seminar, Liang explained the details of the lawsuit, pointing out the fair-use exceptions in Section 52 of the law, and said, “We should make sure that it goes to court, and that the University doesn’t cow down to the publishers’ demands.” Students even gathered outside the Oxford and Cambridge stalls at the Delhi Book Fair this September to protest the publishers’ decision to pursue legal action against Rameshwari.

As the debate stumbles along, Singh remains contemplative. “They speak of sarva shiksha [universal education]. Why don’t they sell cheaper books?” he said when I sat down with him to talk about the case. “There are IAS officers’ children here, but poorer kids also come here to study.”

Before moving to this shop, Singh worked for 30 years in the University’s Central Research Library and the Ratan Tata Library, operating unwieldy machines that couldn’t print more than 300 pages in a day. “You had to crouch down each time to place the book, fix the plate and capture the image. It wasn’t easy,” he said. He used his savings to buy a couple of machines and start a photocopy store at Ramjas College, which his son Dharampal ran for him. Finally, after his retirement, the DSE invited him back to run his present photocopying service. Like most small shop owners, Singh’s numbers are small but they keep him going: 40 paise per exposure; 500 coursepacks; five photocopy machines; a one-year licence from the university for Rs10,000.

Twice, while we talked, an assistant came over to Singh, not knowing whether to carry out a particular order. All OUP and CUP books were immediately dismissed. The old man would hesitantly consider the rest. “Now we have to be careful about every copy,” he said to me, before turning to the assistant with a final decision. “Don’t xerox anything if it’s from a book.”