In many countries it’s common for universities to print course packs, consisting of chapters of various educational books. This allows professors to use a tailored selection of literature they deem relevant for the course in question.
However, not all publishers like this practice. They often demand license fees if the number of copied pages exceeds a certain limit. This is also the nature of a long-running copyright case in India.
Rameshwari Photocopy Services, a small copyshop licensed by Delhi University, was sued by several large publishers including Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, because it failed to pay compensation for copied work.
The case was filed in 2012 and late last week the Delhi High Court issued its verdict, which had been highly anticipated by both academics and copyright lawyers.
In his decision the Chief Justice recalls that during his study, copying was already very common. While suitable copying machines were not available then, students copied books manually, page for page.
The fact that the copyshop now saves students time and effort doesn’t mean that it should suddenly become an offense under Indian copyright law. Students are still copying parts of books, just not by hand.
“When the effect of the action is the same, the difference in the mode of action cannot make a difference so as to make one an offence,” the verdict reads.
In addition, the High Court clarifies that copyright is not an inevitable or divine right, which allows creators to maintain strict and total control over their works.
In the case of education, in particular, it is fair dealing when educators and students copy work to advance knowledge. Making partial copies of books that are available in the university library, certainly fits this description.
“Copyright, specially in literary works, is thus not an inevitable, divine, or natural right that confers on authors the absolute ownership of their creations,” the verdict reads.
“It is designed rather to stimulate activity and progress in the arts for the intellectual enrichment of the public. Copyright is intended to increase and not to impede the harvest of knowledge,” it adds.
The landmark ruling is being welcomed by students and academic scholars, who can now freely copy texts without having to worry about breaking the law.
“The judgment has immense consequences beyond India and is a bold articulation of the principles of equitable access to knowledge — and one that deserves to be emulated globally.” writes Lawrence Liang, law professor at Ambedkar University, currently teaching at Yale.
“Aggressively pushed by the copyright lobby, such as Hollywood, the music industry and the publishing cartels, copyright law had effectively been hijacked by narrow commercial interests,” he adds.
The publishers, however, responded with disappointment and fear that the verdict will limit the availability of educational content in India.
“It is unfortunate that the court’s decision today could undermine the availability of original content for the benefit of students and teachers,” they said.