When photocopying was a necessity, not a copyright issue

Palash Krishna Mehrotra
Palash Krishna MehrotraSep 25, 2016 | 10:22

When photocopying was a necessity, not a copyright issue

This David versus Goliath battle began in 2012, when three publishers - Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis - filed a petition against the Rameshwari Photocopy Service, situated in Delhi School of Economics, seeking to prevent it from selling "course packs" to students.

The photocopier was authorised to do so by the Delhi University. Earlier this month, in a landmark judgment, the Delhi High Court pronounced that reproducing and distributing copies of books for educational purposes is not a copyright infringement.


The publishers were not against course packs per se. They were willing to issue "bouquet licences"; the university or the photocopier would purchase a licence whereby the publisher would be paid each time a course pack was sold.

The price proposed by the publishers was 50 paise per page, which is what the photocopier was charging for a page. The publishers' proposal wasn't all that outrageous. But even if the court had ruled in their favour, I wonder how it would have worked out in practice. Students can forgo course packs and photocopy material independently. No one can stop that.

The case reminded me of my own days at D-School, and the place the photocopier occupied in our lives. It reminded me of the hunger for knowledge one had as a student and how we went about satiating it.

I liked the physical experience of the photocopy shop. The photocopy guy slides in a sheet of paper and presses a button. The machine thunders into motion followed by a flash of light.

Soon the warm sheets start sliding out; he gathers them up, counts the sheets with a spittled thumb, before stapling it all into a booklet.

No matter how nice the bound photocopy looked, it was nothing like the real book in one's hands. (Photo credit: www.instructables.com) 

In Delhi University, Patel Chest was, probably still is, the Times Square of photocopying. One could get high quality photocopies bound to one's preference. I always chose a dark grey cover sheet with simple red cloth binding.

No matter how nice the bound photocopy looked, it was nothing like the real book in one's hands. But in those pre-internet days, where could one find these books?

Often, there was no option but to photocopy. The greatest impediment in one's quest for knowledge was the librarian. He took it as his job to make it as difficult for you to access a book. At D-School, we had a system where certain books could only be borrowed for a day. So it happened that I'd been looking for Louis Dumont's Homo Hierarchichus for three days, and each time the librarian said it wasn't available.

I had to drag the renowned sociologist Andre Beteille from his office, where he was happily typing away, to the library. Seeing him the librarian immediately produced a copy.

Pressure from the top worked, but it shouldn't have been necessary in the first place. It confirms an Indian trait: you give a man some responsibility; he will invariably use it to block rather than enable.


My hunger for knowledge also led to youthful indiscretions. Emile Durheim's The Division of Labour of Society was a prescribed text. I saw it in the CUP stall at a book fair. It had a beautiful blue cover and was expensive like all academic books are. I nicked it.

A friend of mine, who now teaches philosophy in an American university, was just getting interested in Nietzsche. I stole a Nietzsche Companion for him.

In 1995, it cost more than a thousand rupees. I felt happy I'd helped him broaden his horizons and enrich his reading of continental philosophy. I owe CUP some money. This I don't deny.

The joy of holding an actual book cannot be compared to a photocopy. What we lacked were cheap student editions. If we had access there would have been no need to photocopy. This is what I discovered when I went up to Oxford to read philosophy and politics.

Blackwell's put out affordable editions and they were easily available. Blackwell's also had a dedicated store selling second-hand books. Why photocopy when you can read the actual thing? The price of a second-hand copy of Immanuel Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason was the same as a pint of ale.

I don't particularly like the idea of course packs. Nothing like going to the library and taking notes. When you do that you summarise, and summarising is a very useful skill to have in the social sciences.

Course packs reflect the Indian attitude to knowledge. Knowledge is information, a means to an end. Cracking the exam is the end here. So you photocopy pages that are most likely to turn up as exam questions, underline important passages and mug them up.

If you are genuinely interested in a subject, you start building a library. I too saved and bought books (for the record, I only stole twice) because these are classics that you can keep on your shelf for years, even if you've stopped pursuing the discipline.

I still dip into my copy of the Chandogya Upanishad or the Brahmasutras (bought when I was doing my BA in philosophy). I bought them because I had enormous respect for the wisdom contained in the pages, not because it was some stuff to photocopy, mug, regurgitate in a silly exam and throw away afterwards.

Last updated: September 25, 2016 | 10:22
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