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Nobody’s about to kill books

Publishers oppose a new copyright act — but it should pass.

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There is a proposal to amend the Copyright Act that will make it legal to import into India any book that has been validly published outside India,even if an Indian publisher has been granted the exclusive licence to publish it in India. The publishing industry is up in arms against this proposal claiming,rather melodramatically,that this will be the death of books. The truth is somewhat different.

Publishers divvy up the world by region and distribute books differently in each of these distinct territories. In most cases,this has meant local publishers have been able to increase book prices appropriately to generate greater profits locally than would have been possible had the import restrictions not existed. However,these exclusive arrangements can only work if the licence agreements on which they are based are strictly upheld. If books published outside the protected territory can be freely imported,the region-based exclusivity guaranteed under these licence agreements is useless.

Indian books have always retailed at prices lower than their international counterparts so it appears somewhat counter intuitive that the Indian publishing industry is opposing this proposal so vocally. Dig a little deeper and it appears that the real concern stems from a fear that surplus stock in other markets,the so-called “remaindered” books,will be “dumped” in the Indian market at prices that are even lower than the already rock-bottom,India-only prices.

As a matter of fact,the value of intellectual property diminishes dramatically over time. Those who own the work closest to the time of its creation derive the greatest value from it while those further away in point in time make (sometimes disproportionately) less. This is an intellectual property truism that mature markets are well-equipped to deal with,having built multi-layered distribution structures that have high street stores on one end of the spectrum with remaindered books at the other. Admittedly,as a newer market,India has fewer book stores and less time- and value-based differentiation. That is,however,where India needs to be if it wants to build a self-sustaining market-oriented publishing industry. While it might be easier for publishers to shelter behind parallel import restrictions,that approach will not build the deep distribution and retail structures that the industry requires.

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If all books were released in India at the same time as they were released in the West,Indian publishers would have as much of an opportunity as their international counterparts to sell books to their readers. Each of the Harry Potter books were released in India at the same time as they were released elsewhere in the world,with considerable financial success. There is nothing to indicate that,had there been no restrictions on parallel imports,the Indian sales of Harry Potter books would have suffered on account of cheap remaindered books.

But publishers never intended for these arguments to apply to new releases. That market is profitable whichever way you cut it. What is more important is for Indian publishers to be able to continue to release books into the Indian market much after the date of their international release. This will allow them to dribble books into India at their own pace,well after their shelf life in foreign markets has expired,and to charge a higher price for them than they would otherwise be worth.

Seen in this light,the opposition to the proposed amendment is quite obviously protectionist,allowing publishers to artificially extend their monopoly over the works they have licensed at the cost of the readers they are supposed to serve. As a result,consumers are denied access to new and fresh intellectual property and the breadth of choice that the more mature markets have to offer. What’s more,readers are denied the pricing choices that exist in developed markets which allow them to choose to either pay more for fresh content,or forgo the pleasure of buying the latest book as it comes out in exchange for an eventual reduction in price.

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So will this really mean the death of books? Despite the self-important rhetoric from publishers around the country,books will only die when authors stop writing,and authors are only marginally,if at all,affected by this amendment. In fact,once the protection of parallel imports is lifted and the industry is forced to take a more market-oriented approach to distribution,the resultant depth of the market and dynamism of pricing structures will likely make authorship in India more profitable. Publishers will complain bitterly about the dreadful consequences of foreign competition,just like every other segment of our economy did before they were liberalised and as in every other case,when the dust finally settles,they will realise that they are the better for it.

If only they could see that now.

The writer is a Bangalore-based lawyer
express@expressindia.com

First published on: 07-02-2011 at 02:39 IST
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