Piracy Se Pyaar

Partners In Crime navigates the abstract worlds of copyright, art and the market

The film crew: (Left to Right) Shanti Bhushan, Paromita Vohra and Asheesh Pandya. DEEPIKA SHARMA
01 April, 2011

THIS IS A LOVE STORY, and the path of love never runs smooth.

“My name is Sayyed Osama. I am a pirate. I sell all type of pirated films, including adult movies,” declares a cocky, smalltime pirate to the camera in Partners in Crime, a new documentary tracking the grey horizons of copyright and culture. In the background is his makeshift little shop in a streetside market with rows upon rows of the latest Bollywood film DVDs.

“Aren’t you scared saying all this stuff?”

“What’s there to be scared of? We are all in this together, aren’t we?”

“Should I interview you now?”

“No way, it’s business hours.”

“Doesn’t seem like there is much business.”

“Exactly. If there is one extra person around, folks hesitate. Because most customers want adult movies, especially women.”

“Aren’t women shy to buy adult movies?”

“Earlier women sold lingerie, right? Aaj chaddi-bra ki dukaan pe young ladka baithta hai. If they are shy, how will they buy undergarments? Right, right?”

“What is the secret of piracy’s success?”

“People are in love with piracy.”

It is through a series of such uniquely compelling characters that this documentary navigates the abstract worlds of copyright, art and the market in a story about “love, money and crime”.

“Is piracy organised crime or class struggle? Is the fine line between plagiarism and inspiration a copout or a whole other way of looking at the fluid nature of authorship? Who owns a song—the person who made it or the person who paid for it? When more than three-fourths of those with an Internet connection download all sorts of material for free, are they living out a brand new cultural freedom—or are they criminals?” These, according to the film synopsis, are the contentions that Partners in Crime seeks to explore.

Paromita Vohra, a documentary filmmaker noted for extensive work dealing with issues of politics, feminism, culture and desire, says about her latest project, “My concerns are about how we can have better art for people, how artists can have better rights, a better living and so, a better life. The film looks at copyright as an idea which is constantly evolving the relationship between the artist, the producer and the audience.” The documentary was both the opening and the closing film at the Persistence Resistance festival, organised by the Magic Lantern Foundation this February at the India International Centre, New Delhi.

Copyright is that branch of intellectual property law which protects original works of authorship. These include literary, artistic, musical and dramatic works. In recent years, copyright law has been amended to include protection of performers’ rights. Copyright grants an exclusive right to the author over his or her works; this includes a roster of accompanying rights such as the right to authorise reproduction, adaptation, performance and distribution of the content.

In its 90-minute run, Partners in Crime follows a sweeping assortment of stakeholders on either side of the culture-copyright discourse: rock bands who would rather market their own music than submit to the tyrannies of record labels that have copyright territories covering “the world and solar system”; a young and driven entrepreneur who delivers DVDs and merchandise of such bands on demand; a writer who turns the folk songs of low-caste Rajasthani tanners (Meghwals) into short stories; music archivists and restorers who collect and share everything they can get their hands on; antipiracy fanatics who think piracy funds terrorism; a blogger who doggedly tracks music plagiarism in “inspired Indian songs”; smalltown nautanki singers, media moguls, lobbyists, individual downloaders and the aforementioned flamboyant street pirate who masterfully explains the dynamics of the market.

Copyright law came into being to facilitate early privileges and monopolies to book publishers in the wake of Europe’s print revolution. The revolution fostered an understanding that progress can occur through a process of revision and improvement. But the enforcers of the law and its later versions found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the subsequent innovations in technologies of reproduction and their breakneck proliferation. And then came the game-changer: the Internet, which turned the erstwhile consumer into an active actor or reproducer. The legal intractability of the Internet revolutionised the dialectics of copyright, making it the dominant metaphor of the information era, ending in the creation of a new and non-negotiable language of criminality. Piracy emerged as the legitimate marker in identifying non-legal media all over the world, particularly in Asia.

The nautanki group of Rampat and Rani Bala, which is featured in the documentary, performs an act at a smalltown near Lucknow. COURTESY OF DEVI PICTURES

The Indian film industry is a Rs 109.3-billion enterprise, estimated to be growing at 9.1 percent annually. India is also among the world’s most prolific markets for pirated movie DVDs and music CDs. Copyright infringement is anathema to the business. A recent study by Ernst & Young puts the damage from counterfeiting and piracy at $4 billion and 800,000 direct jobs each year. “For every $100 a movie makes, it is losing $50 to piracy,” says Amitabh Vardhan, CEO of PVR Cinemas, one of India’s biggest movie theatre chains.

The Indian government is currently in the process of amending the Indian Copyright Act, 1957. The amendment bill, introduced in the Rajya Sabha last April by then Human Resource Development Union Minister Kapil Sibal, will bring the country’s copyright laws in line with international standards in Internet and digital technology and ensure at least two years’ imprisonment and a considerable fine for violation.

Even as the antipiracy stakes go up, there is a strong community of individuals and organisations that is coming up in opposition to this copyright regime. This community propagates the language of openness, collaborative production and freedom with respect to cultural production.

“Copyleft” is the practice of using copyright law to offer the right to distribute copies and modified versions of a work and requiring that the same laissez faire rights be preserved in modified versions of the work. Its proponents contend that the concept of copyright piracy as criminality is a mainstream-media construct that is constantly reinforced by capitalists to suit their interests, often depriving the rightful creator of the profits.

Intellectual property law draws its credence from the idea that it motivates the authors to invest time, energy and creativity in producing new works, and it is the profits from publication of copyrighted works that keep them going. The anticopyright lobby, however, argues that authors have created in the absence of copyright and instead are encouraged by other incentives such as personal satisfaction, respect and recognition from peers. Advocates debate that copyright protections usually benefit the publisher, rarely the author, beyond an initial payment. Yet another of their arguments claims that piracy is driven by market demand.  A cultural commodity has to reach a particular popularity (or price limit) to enter into the piracy market, and if it has achieved that status, its author or creator is no longer flat broke.


What the metaphor of the poor, struggling author does is render invisible the critical difference between the authorship of a work of intellectual labour and the ownership of the same,” says a concept paper titled ‘Copyright/Copyleft: Myths about Copyright’ by the Alternative Law Forum, a group of anticopyright lawyers and activists who seek to confront the anxieties surrounding piracy.

The recent standoff between the film producers and music composers-lyricists following the proposed amendments to India’s Copyright Act, which aimed at giving a right to royalty to lyricists and composers, is a relevant case. In India, film and recording companies claim ownership of all copyrights to musical works used in films, arguing that this has been the conventional understanding in the industry. The producers are still vehemently opposing the changes in the Act even as actor Aamir Khan, who is also a producer, has resigned from the government’s panel citing differences with lyricists, and Javed Akhtar stands banned by the Indian Music Industry, a trust that represents the recording industry distributors.

Between the puritanical cries of the culture industry and the romantic retorts of the anticopyright activists, some people are looking to create a middle space. Creative Commons is one such attempt.

It was invented to create a more flexible copyright model, replacing “all rights reserved” with “some rights reserved”. Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation headquartered in San Francisco, California, and devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share. By 2008, there were an estimated 130 million works licensed under Creative Commons. Wikipedia is one of the notable web-based projects using one of its licences.

“The combative notions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’, so characteristic of a propertied market economy, are giving way to a more interdependent and embedded means of perceiving reality—one more co-operative than competitive. For people of the 21st century personal freedom will be about the right to be included in webs of mutual relationships. For them, access is already a way of life, and while property is important, being connected is even more important,” economist Jeremy Rifkin says in his book The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life is a Paid-For Experience.

A performance of the death metal band Demonic Resurrection. COURTESY OF DEVI PICTURES

“I collect films, we share them, I don’t see the wrong in that,” says a passionate individual pirate in Partners in Crime. He has downloaded an exhaustive collection of films, funny videos, music and games through a “Rs 700 Internet plan and a 500-kbps connection”.

“People say we don’t value what comes easy,” prods the narrator.

“These haven’t come easy. I have worked hard to collect them. I know the value of what I have.”

“What is the value?”

“It’s very precious to me.”

This indeed is a love story, where love gets to decide first how valuable something is.

(Partners in Crime is produced by Magic Lantern Foundation and is currently being distributed under the banner of Under Construction. For updates, visit www.magiclanternfoundation.org)