The court conclusively stated that the reproduction of any work by a teacher or a pupil in the course of instruction would not constitute infringement.
In a landmark judgment, Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw of the Delhi high court has held that reproducing books and distributing copies thereof for the purpose of education is not copyright infringement. The ruling legitimises the practice of photocopying prevalent in universities and other spaces of learning. The question of whether such photocopying without the permission of the copyright holders was legal arose in 2013. A group of five prominent publishers had filed a suit against the University of Delhi and its photocopying service provider, alleging infringement of their copyrighted titles. Specifically, they argued that the infringement arose from widely used ‘course packs’ which were photocopies of collated passages and chapters from various titles and, sometimes included entire books as well. At the heart of the matter lay the interests of students and their rights and ability to access education, academics invested in the importance of readership and the free flow of knowledge and the publishers who claimed that photocopies hurt their sales and that they ought to benefit from this practice, monetarily. The publishers wanted the court to restrain the defendants from committing ‘institutionalised infringement’ and make them apply for bouquet licenses to carry on with the practice of photocopying.
The suit caused a huge furore. Soon, students and academics joined the fray to mount a stronger defence against the publishers. Notably, Amartya Sen wrote a letter urging the publishers to reconsider the action. Thirty three academics delivered a joint statement against the suit and intervened as the Society for Promoting Educational Access and Knowledge, or SPEAK, while students put forth their interests through the Association of Students for Equitable Access to Knowledge, or ASEAK.
Pending the adjudication of the matter, the court proceeded to temporarily injunct the preparation of such course packs.
The copyright law rests on a delicate balance between the interests of copyright owners (authors, publishers, creators, artists) and copyright users (those who use and enjoy the works). The law is designed to encourage the creation of works and simultaneously, to permit the users to enjoy the works and promote arts and knowledge.
In the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, section 52 lists a number of scenarios which do not constitute infringement, including a fair dealing provision. In other words, the section is the bulwark for public enjoyment of copyrighted work – it allows largely purposive acts, including fair dealing, tied to bona fide use and copying in research, educational institutions, libraries, review, reportage, criticism, incidental copying and a greater degree of use for the benefit of disabled people.
The act of photocopying, the court ruled, is reproduction of the work and constitutes infringement, unless it is listed under section 52. It found that the acts of photocopying, preparing course packs and their distribution fell within the ambit of section 52(1)(i), which states that “the reproduction of any work – by a teacher or a pupil in the course of instruction”, would not constitute infringement. Interpreting the clause in an expansive manner, the court deemed that the application of the clause is not limited to an individual teacher-student relationship, but is applicable to educational institutions and organisations such as DU and thus, the law must reflect the realities of our burgeoning educational system.
The publishers contended that use of the copyrighted material should occur only during the course of the instruction, that is, in classroom lectures. The court disagreed and held that the course of instruction “…include(s) reproduction of any work while the process of imparting instruction by the teacher and receiving instruction by the pupil continues during the entire academic session for which the pupil is under the tutelage of the teacher and that imparting and receiving of instruction is not limited to personal interface between teacher and pupil but is a process commencing from the teacher readying herself/himself for imparting instruction, setting syllabus, prescribing text books, readings and ensuring, whether by interface in classroom/tutorials or otherwise by holding tests from time to time or clarifying doubts of students, that the pupil stands instructed in what he/she has approached the teacher to learn.”
Whereas the court liberally interpreted the provision on educational institutions, it also rigidly laid out the contours of the copyright law, pivotal in enabling public enjoyment of works. It held that copyright is a statutory right and not a natural or a common law right. Thus, the nature of copyright is limited and is subject to limitations and exceptions set in the law. It further added that “Copyright, specially in literary works, is thus not an inevitable, divine, or natural right that confers on authors the absolute ownership of their creations. 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 is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors in order to benefit the public.”
On the issue of charging a nominal fee (40 paise per page), it was held that the said rates could not cumulatively amount to be competing with the sales price of the books. They were reasonable operational costs and only if the reproduction charges were similar to the books, could they have been said to be functioning commercially. Furthermore, the court observed that in an age of technological advancement, any act of copying for the purpose of education (within the ambit of section 52) – whether by pen and paper, or photocopying machines, or by students clicking pictures of textbooks on their cellphones should be permissible.
Justice Endlaw also pointed out that this flexing of user rights is in conformity with several international treaties. India is a signatory to the TRIPS Agreement and the Berne Convention, which allows India to decide “as to what extent utilisation of copyrighted works for teaching purpose is permitted..(provided) that the same is to the extent justified by the purpose” and does not “unreasonably prejudice the legitimate rights of the author.”
This fresh jurisprudence is a vindication of the freedom to exchange ideas and knowledge, which is crucial to fostering an excellent learning space. This will also ensure that eager students and teachers in developing countries freely share latest research and publications, without the slightest hesitation of operating in a grey area. Justice Endlaw’s judgment has aptly restored the public-serving face of copyright law, which is a huge triumph for access to knowledge.
Anubha Sinha is a lawyer, and works on issues of access to knowledge and openness at the Centre for Internet and Society, India.