The Right to Make Copies

For those who are not accustomed to my obscure and annoying ways, a disclaimer. This post, though being written on the 28th anniversary of one of the most vicious violations of human rights, is not about the Bhopal tragedy. I used this disturbing image not just so that we do not forget about what arrogance can lead to but also because 1. it is not mine, but by a photographer called Pablo Bartholomew, and I am reproducing it without his permission 2. I believe that human tragedy is a lesson to learn from and 3. because this is the outcome of corporatization and commercialization of human knowledge - tragedy without accountability. This post is about reclaiming that which was always ours but has been stolen from us by the concept of mine.

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I get up in the morning, go through all the updated blogs of my friends, and make a list of facts and ideas that I can use for a post of my own. Sometimes, it works. At other times, it is frustrating, especially during blogging contest season, which in the recent past has been almost once a month. It is terrible to wake up and find everyone writing the same stuff. One of the good ones (in terms of copying) has been the recent ideas and outline for a real love story. This has everything that one can ask for. Many of the ideas are great, they are all supposed to be factual. A treasure-house for diligent copiers like me. Okay, I lie. Some of the ideas are great.

What about copyright and social boycott, you ask? That is there, but I cannot be any more socially boycotted than I already am, given my views on all things dear to most people, and as far as copyright goes, well, it goes. Here is a publishing house and a bloggers platform telling you to share your facts and ideas on your blog, taking care only to leave the climax out. Where is the problem if I use them? And for better or worse, I don’t need a lot of help with a climax. (Note to self: Post that love story before it shows up as someone else’s idea.)


The concept of copyright comes from the 17th century when printing books began. The word means exactly what has made it the subject of schoolboy blogger jokes - the right to copy. However, it implies the right to make copies of your own work, and the mechanism that protects you from others copying your work. The concept of copyright is closely tied in with that of capitalism and individual property rights. The decades preceding the industrial revolution is when, like earth, air and water, individual works like paintings and songs and sculpture became the possession of the person who came up with it rather than a collective social property. Therefore, while the core text of the Bhagavad Gita or The Bible is in the public domain, most translations or versions with commentary are not, and since we tend to use English versions and neither of the originals of these two classics were written in English, chances are that anything we quote from them comes under copyright laws somewhere or the other. It might interest you to know that even the song, Happy Birthday is under copyright, and if you are going to include it in any work that makes you money, be ready to get a notice from the copyright holder.

While copyright laws differ from country to country, the globally accepted norm is the Berne Convention (for the protection of literary and artistic works) which was formulated 130 years ago. This has, of course, been worked upon several times and in several countries in the last century. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Copyright Treaty of 1996 together with the Berne Convention offer the most comprehensive protection that a creative person can ask for with regard to making copies of his own work. It may interest readers to know that the UK signed the Berne convention in 1887 but failed to incorporate much of it in its own laws till 1988, and the United States disagreed with the terms of the Convention till 1988, because of which another global standard, the Universal Copyright Convention had to be adopted in 1952.

But dry facts aside, the idea of protecting your creations comes from the fact that somewhere down the line, two things happened. The first was a need to be identified as the author and to be protected against someone else claiming your work as their own, and the second, of course, was to protect your potential to earn – money, goodwill, fame, invitations to launches, lunches and seminars – through your creative work. The arts were never a trade, and from the beginning of civilization, man has pursued his muse either at the cost of personal material welfare or through patronage, usually from the state or from the wealthier, or more enlightened members of society. (Please email me if you want my bank account details, all patronage will be thankfully acknowledged in the form of haikus and tankas detailing your kind and gentle nature. If your patronage is generous enough, I might even enable right click copying on this blog!) As we have evolved into consumers and shopkeepers and emerging markets rather than civilizations and human beings, this has become all the more important. While Kabir might not have had a problem, Chetan Bhagat would surely not take kindly to his right to make copies being trampled upon. Of course, it is very difficult for most people to write like him, but that is not the point.

Let me just lay down the facts as they appear to me, so that we can all go home happy. Creative output, such as song, praise, plays, novels, sculptures, paintings, cinema, cave art - basically express our understanding of our world, and are created to evoke emotions, to share our wonder and joy, or perhaps sorrow, at our collective human experience. For centuries, they were public domain, and the cost of producing them or sustaining the artist was born either by society as a whole (Cacofonix the Bard, Manmohan Singh) or by the state or by the wealthy (Mozart, Da Vinci, Tansen). The wandering minstrel sang of the mysticity of sex and death and god, filling the air and our hearts with gladness and wonder, and society took care of him and his boshtumi by providing them a place to live, grain to eat, and an older model of playstation for the kids. This was when people believed that mother earth cannot be owned, that its bounties were for all to share, and that a society was only as rich as its ability to bring welfare to all.

With the industrial revolution and the ability to quickly and easily make copies, the right of the author became easy to corrupt and benefit from. So now, individuals wishing to enjoy song, cinema or sculpture has to pay for it himself, and the money largely goes towards the cost of making that work available. Minus taxes to the state for allowing all of this to happen, of course. Minus the cost of advertising and marketing, of course. And minus the mark-ups that a complex distribution system demands, of course. The state is out of the picture, since it has to maintain armies, find ways to grow vegetables on other planets, and spend years arguing about things till it is time for a new government anyway, and any money it has to promote the arts has to first go to the wives and brother-in-laws of those in power who claim to be “artists” of various sorts. Magic is an art too, as is conning, aren’t they? So the state, as noted, is out of the picture. Vanish.

So let's see, I am a poet, and I write, let's say Haikus (I don’t but then neither do a lot of people) out of my gladness, and hope that it will gladden you too. In order to write Haikus, I need to sustain myself. I am not a fool, so I know there is no Ministry of Silly Walks that will pay me to keep Haiku’ing. So I write them, and give them to a publisher, who publishes them, and then gives the books to a distributor, and the publisher and distributor then pay for advertising it and putting it in book stores, and then book store sells it. The book store keeps its cut and its cost of running the store, pays the rest to the distributor, who keeps his cut and the cost of distributing and pays the rest to the publisher, who keeps… you get the picture. After a cycle of several months, I have not only made some money through my Haiku but have actually helped sustain a whole lot of others through my Haiku writing. This is called the right to make copies.

Copyright has traditionally been violated and disputed down the ages. There are more than three dozen identified authors of the worlds largest selling book, and even Shakespeare is believed to have fallen prey to those who found it easier to pass of their work as his. Even The Life of Pi can be found in older works by other authors. And now, thanks to digital communications and an always-on social media, it is easier and quicker to find facts and ideas that you can copy. If the content has been put out with the disclaimer that it is factual and just an idea, hell, all the better. All a poet can do is warn. I don't see Wilfred Owen or Pablo suing me. That is the essence of creativity.

I see all of these, including this post, as small steps to put back in the public domain that which was meant to be collective property, our wisdom, our grief, our faith, our emotions, our pain, our wonderment, and our joys. By our insistence of building a commercial model for creative output, all we have done is put a price to that which is priceless. How does the artist sustain himself or herself? How do we address the issue of authorship when it is violated? These are question that society has to figure out for itself. Question that involve assessing whether we have the maturity to give art the importance it deserves, whether we can rise above the high art and popular art differentiation, and whether we realize that our value as a civilization (God’s greatest creation for some) is intrinsically linked to how we value creativity itself.

I am giving away three large five-star nougat bars to the first three people (Indian residents only) who can identify where this post is borrowed from. Given the fact that the majority of readers here are creative artists themselves, I also look forward to a stimulating discussion, one where I might just play truant.

19 comments:

  1. A thought provoking post, Subhorup! You really made me think about the ideas that we've been publishing for the contest. Personally, my story was out there because I had penned it 3 years ago. So, I just submitted it. And, since it has been on the blog, I guess it was okay. I often wonder about originality. I mean ideas are not original. We all are inspired from somewhere -- life, experiences, the books we read, the articles we read etc. So, the inspiration comes from many sources. Completely copy pasting someone else's work and peddling it as your own is wrong. In content writing too, when we research we base our writing on what someone has already written, so we attribute it to them while giving reference links. Just a few days back, someone had asked me how to protect their copyright on their writings? How do we especially when it is already published online? Is it worth protecting and fighting for? I always maintain that ideas are not original but copying is wrong. I am wondering if this makes any sense.

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    1. The way digital communication has created an entirely customizable "social network," attempts to control copyright are futile. How can anyone stop me from sharing what I find and how can anyone control what happens to it after I share it? Perhaps in some sense, this is a good thing, since it returns back to society what was born of it. The question that needs to be answered is how we can sustain the arts and the artists in a way that they can retain authorship and also get some material benefit from their work. In my mind, governments and institutions need to come forward to encourage people to take up the creative arts, not as careers, but as a calling and they should fund them adequately.

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    2. And that does not seem practical, does it?

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    3. That is how all great art has been funded down the times, till the 19th century. Several European countries still fund the creative arts in a big way. But it is a distant dream in today's materialistic and competitive (and corrupt) world. No harm dreaming though.

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  2. Borrowing ideas is one thing and blatantly copying is another ...in my own twisted language , I call the former " inspiration" and the later ..well I have to call it "Copying" ...ahh and this post seems to be very "you" with that trademark dry humor ...so do I get that five star nougat ?

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    1. Copying something as is and passing it off as your own is criminal, Sridevi. While it may result in short term gains, with time, the consequences will catch up. However, borrowing ideas, or unconsciously being "inspired" by the work of another is another matter altogether. It can happen unknowingly just as much as it can be used as an excuse to pass someone else's thinking off as yours. We have seen it happen so often in the blogging world itself. And how can I not give you the nougat bar, Sridevi, after the nice things you say about me?

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  3. i like the write in its entirety ....it certainly conveys what i am going through right now... :-(

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    1. Linda, honored to have you here, and to receive a comment from you. This is a reality that creative artists have to live with. Is it an honored to be plagiarized from? Even if it is, it does feel like having been cheated. Does the poetry I write belong to me? No, it doesn't; it belongs to the sun, the moon, the stars and the people. Yet, do I not have a right to be known as the one through whom it chose to be written? And on top of all this is the entire question of those who choose the creative arts as a profession. It was this dilemma that made me write this, Linda, and I am aware that it is a difficult question to answer, both for creative artists themselves, and for society.

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  4. Yes... drawing inspiration is not copying... but sometimes I get confused where the inspiration stops and copying starts... up to what length inspiration is allowable before crying plagiarism ...

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    1. Very difficult question to answer, Rajrupa. When I look back at my poetry from my teens, I find that I have used many devices and metaphors as is from the poets who influenced me, and I know that it was not conscious or intentional. I recently wrote something very spontaneously and later, when I read it, I can find a lot of "inspiration" that can also be called copying. My feeling on this is that when it comes from within, without intent, it should not be called plagiarism. Copying is one of the first steps of training to be an artist. We all have become who we are through copying - speech, walking, bowling, flirting, writing. However, this distinction of copying and plagiarizing can be implemented only in a perfect world. Till that world comes around, I guess we have to take help of more "medieval" criteria and methods.

      I knew when I was writing that this post was going to get me into a lot of trouble.

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  5. Subho

    I suggest you look at Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org/) which represents a solution for protecting the creator's right as well as allowing creative freedom.

    Supriyo

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    1. Supriyo, Thanks for the pointer, and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. Creative Commons is at the same time an embodiment of the Commons, the original space where all social resources belong, and protection of authorship. It is also the most widely adopted method by writers, artists, photographers and bloggers to protect their work.

      The commons is also the space that would allow societies to determine how natural resources were to be used. Our times desperately demand a review of this beautiful and natural concept.

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  6. Hahahaha I was waiting for you to express your views on this subject and now that you have--more eloquently and sharply than I could ever, can I just give you a hug and say muah, my intellectual-kin!
    Yep, for the exact same reasons I deliberately threw my dissertation to free access and download although folks were saying that 4 years of research could be converted to a nice book--which frankly it can be and it will be.
    A friend of mine allows anybody to download and use his photographs. He thinks that photos were taken by a higher spirit and he does not own it. Of course, there are always cases of misuse like Firoze bhai's Hijra photographs being used in a sex racket.
    But knowledge that emerges within us is not individual property--it is collective churning that emerged through the pen of a particular person at a particular point in time. But it was never ever exclusive one person's. Like the seeds of a plant--it belongs to the whole.
    You have handled this subject with depth, sensitivity and good humour! I am learning something from you today, once again!

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    1. Thanks, Bhavana for adding greater clarity and perspective to what I was trying to say in the post. The two problems here, especially for those who choose to dedicate their entire being to their art, are those of misuse and sustenance. I strongly believe that we need to evolve institutions (not just institutes) that permit artists to sustain themselves while practising their art, along with a way that young artists can be encouraged not to give in to social or peer or parental pressures to abandon what they are called from within to do. As far as misuse goes, there is no way to stop it; the new media and social space has shown that it has its own wisdom regarding intellectual property, and that even the strictest policing can be overcome. For artists, being aware of this aspect of their work is essential, and one that should be viewed through eyes of compassion, with prayer that the consequences of the misuse not be unbearable.

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  7. Excellent analysis. It keeps in line with the broader theme of your philosophy as well. Art is yet another victim of the greater malady of commercialization plaguing the world.

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  8. Well what can i say that you have not already sauid and other commentators have not ..

    everyone copies I think, nature put everything out there , ARE the so called well know photographers not copying nature by taking pictures without permission :)

    yet when someone copies their pic they shout .. I think that if we have put something on a public place then we should have the heart that someone somewhere Will copy our idea and will use it .. if we dont want that happening then we shud not put our material up their on public platform for all to see and read.. keep it private simple solution.

    moreover how do we stop it , who will police it ..

    I dont mind saying that when i write something I pick up a idea from some another blog, or someone's comment , or by watching a tv show anything .

    There is only SO many ways we can all say the same thing, so is that copying or what :)

    Bikram's

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  9. I think it’s important to understand the difference between inspiration and copying....there is a very thin line between getting inspired and copying it and at times its very easy to cross that line too...moreover inspiration works in true senses only if we can create something totally new out of that, its like studying a case history to solve a new case somewhat simmillar to the earlier one otherwise ultimately it turns into imitation and not innovation......

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  10. I was pleasantly surprised to read this as I saw this today just after I spent a good amount of time googling on Copyrighting related issues and how the Copyright Act in India is enacted.. And this sprang from a recent instance of having observed someone copying an artwork and selling it as his/her own. Unfortunately , copying exists..smart ones don't make it obvious and don't get caught. And while I was reading, I also came across the interesting fact that deriving 10% inspiration from an original was okay but 20% was not ! I also discovered that it is highly difficult to detect copies, more so in case of images than copying texts. The degree of difficulty gets magnified even more when a painting is copied versus a photography which is re-used.We can probably draw solace from the fact, that if somebody's copying you, you must be good :)

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  11. getting inspired is good but plagiarism is a complete no no..!

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