Bootlegging Education – Four Strategies for Fighting Back
Yes, this is what we must do now on a large scale – bootleg education.
Thanks to the conjunction of new heights of intellectual bankruptcy with new regimes of intellectual property, a large scale attack on equitable access to education is upon us. A longer discussion on ‘Intellectual property’ is required, but the immediate provocation for this post is of course the Delhi University photocopying case. Elsewhere on Kafila, there is a post that links to a petition by authors and academics on this issue. The case, very simply is this: three big corporate publishers, namely Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis have filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, claiming infringement of copyright with regard to course packs used by students. The offender against these giant publishers is a small photocopy shop in Delhi School of Economics. As many legal experts on intellectual property and the Indian copyright law have stated, this kind of photocopying is well within the framework of the law (See some of the discussion here and here).
At the moment, however, I am not concerned with the pure legality of the issue. The question of ‘course packs’ concerns the vital interests of our society as a whole. For there was a time when teaching at the college and university level was conducted largely through substandard kunjis, or guidebooks – honourable exceptions apart, of course. Even today we have at least one of the corporate giants (that happens to be among those suing the little Rameshwari photocopier), producing slightly upmarket versions of such guidebooks. University professors willing to write a substandard book a month that fits into some course or the other, are also published by publishers like these now, euphemistically called ‘textbooks’. In an earlier time, such books of barely passable scholarship (largely plagiarized cut-and-paste jobs) would be published only by dubious publishers.
Course packs with essays and book chapters from original writings came as a much needed change. Students were now able to read the great masters of the disciplines or keep abreast of new developments in the field, by reading originals, even when the books themselves were not available even in metropolitan India – not to speak of smaller towns. Photocopied materials included in course packs transformed the level and mode of teaching completely. Instead of ready-made lectures, prepared decades ago and regurgitated in classrooms, we now had students being made to read stuff that they would then have to discuss. It is a long story of a change that was still underway, that has now been thwarted. Once more the spectre of idiocy reigning in class rooms stares us in the face.
Corporate publishers are of course in the business for their profit and not for ensuring that our students get the right kind of education. But what do we say of a government and a university that falls prostrate before this corporate logic? This is where the question of intellectual bankruptcy comes in. Starting with our venerable education (HRD) minister right down to university vice-chancellors (with some honourable exceptions again) and university bureaucrats, we now have a breed of people who are hell bent upon destroying education. Especially higher education. It is farcical the way they seem to believe that simply by ramming the semester system down the throats of teachers and introducing four-year degree courses, they will improve the quality of education. As anyone who has been actually teaching rather than merely Siballing (i.e.vacuous gassing and talking down without content) will tell you, already, in the first year of the semester system, the dumbing down is becoming evident. Teachers too are being consumed by the endless conducting of examinations and script evaluation, with teaching itself being squashed into a small part of the semester, leaving them with no time for the creative and pleasurable work that teaching always was.
However, that is a longer story. Some day, very soon, we shall return to this aspect of the systematic destruction of higher education. For the present, let me turn to the issue at hand. Now that a government-without-vision and a pliable university administration have decided to prostrate themselves before this corporate logic, what can we do? While we certainly need to fight the legal battle, there are some more concrete steps that we (those interested in seeing that higher education is not completely destroyed) might need to consider taking.
In the first place, we need to become bootleggers, rather than be content with remaining paid employees of a mindless governmental bureaucracy. We need to pool all our resources, all our books – bought and downloaded – to make them available to our students. This requires some work. Through this post, let me make this appeal to all our academics to put their heads together to find ways of doing what Rameshwari photocopier was only doing on a small scale. We as authors need to do more.
Here are four possible strategies:
1. A campaign to get the maximum number of academics to boycott these three big publishers at every level, unless they are prepared to withdraw their case.
2. All authors need to read their publication contracts – especially the fine print – very carefully. Authors must insist on retaining the copyright of their work and its execution rights in their hands.
3. A proposal some of us have been discussing: Can something like a consortium of small publishers (say like the one that already exists and runs U-special, the DU bookshop) agree to put their heads together with some of our legal minds working in copyright, to evolve a commercially viable creative commons/ copyleft regime? On that basis, we can approach prospective authors to publish with these publishers.
4. In case (3) is something that can be agreed upon, some of us can do voluntarily what acquisition editors do for big publishers – that is, convince our peers that this can be a viable publishing option.
The battle against corporate capital is not in some indefinite future. The time is now.