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Weaving a tangled web

It is lack of access to a book or movie that encourages online piracy. Pratik Kanjilal writes.

india Updated: Jan 27, 2012 23:43 IST
Pratik Kanjilal
Pratik Kanjilal

Salman Rushdie has won the Battle of Jaipur, in absentia, by doing nothing but tweeting. The Satanic Verses, almost a quarter of a century old, has got free mileage which may trigger a fresh spurt in sales. And India has seen the first public defiance of the culture of book-banning, thanks to readings from the proscribed text at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

But in the private domain, the ban has been meaningless for years. Ever since BitTorrent, every Indian who wanted to read The Satanic Verses and discover what the fuss was about has quietly downloaded a bootleg digital edition. In this story, the pirate is the good guy and the cop is vile.

Of course, Rushdie has been popular with pirates from pre-internet times - since the early Eighties, when Midnight's Children breached a glass ceiling and won the Booker. A pirated paperback edition immediately flooded the market. I think I first saw a legit edition in the Nineties. In 2007, on his last - and completely peaceful - visit to Jaipur, Rushdie had revealed that his pirate publishers were so grateful that they sent him greeting cards at Eid and Christmas.

Coincidentally, just 48 hours before Rushdie was scheduled to speak at Jaipur, the internet blacked itself out in protest against two Bills in the US Congress and Senate, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act.

They have been promoted by major copyright owners like Hollywood, the music industry and a few big brands, big publishers and big media, but the internet industry regards them as draconian for several legitimate reasons. They are loosely framed, intrusive and can be misused, they criminalise websites hosting pirated material - not just the pirates themselves - and can cut off their funds and search engine links. Like sanctions, a useless tool of Western foreign policy, they will only cause collateral damage. Because pirates already know how to subvert them.

Even copyright owners who are directly hurt by piracy, like Trent Reznor, founder of Nine Inch Nails and composer of the soundtrack for The Social Network, have spoken out against these proposed laws. That's not as strange as it sounds. Creative people sometimes have a love-hate relationship with piracy because they aren't purely commercial. They are also interested in reaching out to new audiences, to which the pirate gives access. The interests backing sledgehammer anti-piracy laws are mainly corporations with a strong profit motive.

But legal action has never curbed piracy, from Napster till now, because it is not a criminal issue. Rather, the issue is freedom of access. Think for yourself: if you had easy access to both pirated and legitimate copies of a book, an album, a movie or a software package, which would you choose? The legit copy, obviously. There is a motive for piracy only when something is not available in your country, like The Satanic Verses in India, or when it is exorbitantly priced by local standards, like DVDs, books and software packages sold here at Western prices.

The quickest way to generate a demand for pirated goods is to tell people that they can't have it because it's either banned or priced beyond their reach. It sounds too much like a challenge.

(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Jan 27, 2012 23:41 IST