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Pirates in our public library: Why Indian scholars are closely watching a court case in Quebec

The online library aaaaarg.fail, which is being sued for copyright violation, gives researchers access to a wealth of vital texts that are inaccessible in the subcontinent.

In 2005, Sean Dockray did what any sensible government should have done for its students. The American artist set up a sharing-enabled platform for a website then called aaaaarg.org, and uploaded digital copies of largely theoretical and philosophical texts that could be freely downloaded by readers. Before long, many of the researchers, students, teachers, and scholars who used the site began to upload scans of texts in their possession – exactly as Dockray hoped they would.

To readers based in places like India, a collection with this breadth is simply unavailable and, on first sight, unimaginable, as these books often sell at more than three or four times the price of a bestselling novel. Outside of the highly professionalised, and increasingly corporatised atmosphere of the better-funded US, European and East Asian university libraries, scholars have to settle for producing critical research without access to (or sometimes knowledge of) essential material.With aaaaarg.org, anyone with an internet connection could access mutually contributed material, reminding us that research relies on a common pool of ideas.

Since no good deed goes unpunished, Dockrayhas been regularly pursued with the odd legal notice. Those who punched in the address aaaaarg.org (now aaaaarg.fail) to search for this boon of a resource know that it kept adding or subtracting an “a” to its cry of frustration every six months or so in response to the threats. Aaaaarg.org sometimes took down a few texts, negotiated with publishers, and persuaded a few to back off, aided by reader support. The site is now hosted by free software advocate Marcell Mars as aaaaarg.fail. As a case filed by an unknown publisher is underway in the Superior Court of Quebec, long time users are, aside from contributing towards their legal expenses, hoping that the project does not go the way of other online sites such as library.nu and gigapedia that were forced to shut down.

Contrary to the impression that big publishers like to create, a repository like aaaaarg does not curtail book buying. It merely alters the mental categories through which book buyers in any case make decisions: the size of their room, how frequently they move house, their budgets, should they buy new books, or older ones that might go out of print? To this, we may add a few aaaaarg-based categories: “since that book is on aaaaarg.fail, let me buy this one instead”, or, “I saw that book on aaaaarg.fail, and it is available here.”

Mistaken assumptions

Intrinsic to the design of this repository is its unpoliced expansion, which increases awareness of linked fields of inquiry, and if anything, generates a greater demand for books. So although anyone receiving or distributing something freely is looked upon with contempt because she is supposedly damaging the livelihood of academic publishers, the state of academic publishing doesn’t bear that out. If digital technology can give us free books, it has also made book production cheaper (not that we see that reflected in book prices). Bookshops are shutting down as purchases shift online, but publishers are opening up.

The structure of academic publishing might explain why researchers think that the taint of piracy being attached to them most accurately describes their accusers. Academic publishing is an intrinsic part of institutional academic production: as a condition for employment, universities place a premium on candidates whose work has been published by the most reputed publishing houses. In the process, scholars subject themselves to copyright laws that deny them ownership of their own work and negligible royalties, given the limited circulation of these relatively arcane texts.

In this system, writers have no control over pricing or distribution of their books or journals or articles, cannot republish their own material and cannot stop it from going out of print. Access to these journals is then sold back to the University administration through databases that charge considerable fees and impose strict controls on circulation. With the ongoing witch-hunt of sites like aaaaarg.fail, the very community that needs and produces this material is being debarred from reading it.

If an appeal had to be made to the court in Quebec, it would be to consider the effects that aaaaarg.fail has on students and teachers in a country like India: the project shows how easily a research lag and unequal access can be diminished at least at the level of technical design.

Restrictive copyright regime

Of late, the difference in intellectual inputs available to a student in India and elsewhere has shrunk. Search engines like Delnet, and Shodhganga have enabled cross-city searches and inter-library loans. The University Grants Commission enables access to search engines that bring international journals and databases to university students. Aside from Shodhganga, however, these resources mentioned are only available to those registered with a university, off-campus access to online resources is often restricted, while on-campus infrastructure for access remains negligible.

It is particularly ironic that Indian students and teachers are made to justify open access and address intellectual work as a commodity at all when the Indian Copyright Act of 1957, a post-Independence piece of legislation, creates an exception for the use of materials for educational purposes. Section 52 is worth reading and reproducing repeatedly so that students know that their creative circumventing of budgetary limitations through digital exchanges and photocopying has legal protection. Government educational institutions however, continue to be signatory to fairly rigid terms and conditions placed by the academic search engines, though these collide with the Copyright Act. The university community has yet to find a strong enough public voice to press for the actualisation of what is legal – making resources available to at least some of its 33.3 million college students for non-commercial educational use.

With simplicity that characterises the project, Marcell Mars who hosts the site, states in a video about aaaaarg.fail: “The goal is to keep the public library”. The reach of this project should earn it awards in developing countries and help counter the strong culture of control around books and education. However, in a country that refuses a jailed severely disabled English professor his constitutional rights, whose universities drive students to suicide, and in which book banning has become a means of political moblisation, aaaaarg.fail may not find an official voice recognising its role. Maybe the court in Quebec will find a better climate to do so.

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