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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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“Doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, our mistakes will be there for everyone to see”

Celebrated architect Hadi Teherani tells us what luxury in the living space means to him.

Hadi Teherani is best known for designing iconic buildings in Germany including the famous Dockland office in Hamburg and the Kranhaus in Cologne. But he’s also left his mark on the landscape of Abu Dhabi with the Zayed University, and has designed a luxury residence that will soon grace the skyline of Mumbai—Lodha Altamount. We spoke to him about the challenges of designing luxury living spaces in India.

Q. In your opinion, what is the definition of luxury specifically in the area of private residences? Is it a lot of fresh air, space and daylight? Is it the room composition? Or is luxury something completely different?

Hadi Teherani (HT): For me, luxury is first and foremost to have space, not just enough for what you need but enough space to really thrive. And luxury has always been defined that way. If you look at Art Nouveau houses, those rooms have incredible heights. So yes, space is definitely an important factor when it comes to luxury. In Europe people pay attention to every square metre and here in Mumbai it is the same. There are slums where 4 people live in one room and just across the street somebody is living by himself on 1000 square metres. Once you have space, luxury can be in the features, in using certain materials, and there is no limit. Some things, of course, are simply not available here: the luxury of fresh air and a clean sea. No matter how much money you are willing to spend, you cannot get those. Therefore, you are limited to what is available.

Q. Have you incorporated this concept of space into previous projects?

HT: Yes, in different ways, no matter if you are working on government-sponsored housing projects or in the luxury segment. Usually our projects are more in the luxury segment, where space is crucial. We are currently designing a building where luxury can already be sensed at the parking level. You reach with your car and you are already supposed to have the feeling that you’ve arrived at a hotel lobby. This is how far luxury has come. That the arrival in a garage already gives you the feeling as if you are coming to a palace—you get out of your limousine into this stunning lobby and this feeling continues as you go up into the apartment where you have a bathroom that is 20-30 square metres and not just 5-10. The idea of really designing your bathroom or kitchen has not yet reached India. Bathrooms are still rather compact and practical since the idea of spending quality time in your bathroom doesn’t seem to exist yet. Customers definitely do not request a spacious bathroom when we discuss their projects. For me, personally, a great bathroom is extremely important, as it is the first thing you use in the morning. Afterwards you go to work, and you come back home. But I believe the areas that you use most need to have enough space for you to move and thrive in.

Q. Do you have any role model in the field of architecture? Maybe a building or a person?

HT: The Bauhaus is still my role model. Back then they designed products for day-to-day life, affordable for the general population. But those products have become classics today like the lounge chair by Le Corbusier. Those were project works but Bauhaus thought further ahead. The idea was to give people light, air and space, and to free them from elements that were poorly designed and uncomfortable like big stucco ceilings. The focus needs to be light, air and sun. For them, architecture and product design were always very fluent concepts. Le Corbusier, for instance, designed fantastic buildings as well as whole cities, but on the other hand also designed furniture. Gropius had even designed a car once and furniture, too. This school of thinking has influenced me, and once you have all those “tools” and this way of thinking, you get very far. With this “toolbox” of modern design, you can create anything and influence society. The times back then aided this development; everyone was opening up, living in and with nature, not hiding away in little holes. And the world evolved from there. And today you can see they are daring even more spectacular things in Asia than they used to in Old Europe.

Q. You have already gained quite some experience in India. Is there something that you would define as a typical “Indian palate”, and if so, how does it differ from the international projects? You already mentioned the differences in bath and kitchen design, but are there, for instance, taboos like colours you wouldn’t use or something in room composition?

HT: I haven’t encountered anything like that. What I do experience is that many projects are influenced by religious thoughts and by Vaastu, something like Feng shui. So the master bedroom has to be in the south-west and the kitchen has to have a certain location. Those rules need to be followed exactly, no matter if it makes sense for the building or not. Here in Mumbai it’s a little more liberal but in other regions, Hyderabad for instance, every centimetre has to be exact as per Vaastu. Sometimes they want a dedicated room for pujas. All this changes while designing a project, of course. But overall the ground plans are not that different. The families might be bigger so houses and apartments are bigger as well, or they are trying to utilize each and every square metre and avoid hallways, for example.

Those projects are also in the centre of a lot of marketing. We are not used to that in Europe but here in Mumbai or even more in other cities like Bangalore, along the entire highway from the airport into the city you only see 50-metre-high billboards announcing new real estate projects. You don’t see anything else! And it’s very creative marketing with catchy headlines and slogans. That isn’t happening in Germany. One more difference: when designing upper class buildings in India, they require a maid or servant room, maybe a separate entrance from the staircase and so forth. Here, you can still afford having a maid. In Europe you might have someone coming by for three hours once a week but certainly not living in.

Q. Let’s talk about the Lodha Altamount. What was the challenge?

HT: The design of Altamount was strongly influenced by being a Lodha project and by its location. Next to Altamount stands a luxury highlight of architecture, the Ambani tower, the most expensive home in the world. How do you want to top that? The Ambani tower is very structural. It shoots through the air, it combines all sorts of crafts and structural design elements with gaps and open spaces. You can’t top that and definitely not with our type of design. That’s why we decided to hold back and instead develop a dark and sleek building. That type of building doesn’t exist a lot here in India. Usually buildings have many structural elements like beams and balconies. By creating a calm building in the skyline of Mumbai, we will make Altamount stand out. Plus, the top of the building is very unique. Many structures are either simply cut off straight or completed by a dome. We have two geometric pointy tops so that the building is properly completed and doesn’t look as if it could grow further. It has a head and feet and is finished. So for us to hold back was our way to stand out. It doesn’t devalue the building design in anyway. It is meant expressively in the sense of “less is more”. And the interior is of course very luxurious: it is designed through and through, there is the green car parking podium, each balcony has a mini pool. So all those luxury features are present but the architectural design is based on the idea of “less is more”.

Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.
Lodha Altamount (Mumbai) designed by Hadi Teherani.

Q. Luxury can drift into the eccentric, depending on the client. Have there been any projects that were very eccentric which you still accepted or projects that you had to turn down because they were too eccentric?

HT: As architects, we create a space. What happens, of course, is that people buy an apartment in a great contemporary building and then furnish it in a baroque style. But that freedom has to be there, of course, because we can’t also tell the client which curtains to use or clothes to wear. At a certain point our job is done. However, when it comes to public buildings, the public is supposed to benefit from, so I have to be strict and dictate. In private buildings you can leave it up to the individual but publicly I have a responsibility and cannot consider each and every taste. I have to do a clean job so that in the end every individual can find himself or herself in my design. Anyway, taste always stems from a certain upbringing, culture and environment, so I also have the duty to educate and that’s what I do with my projects. When a small child walks by a building, she recognizes when the proportions are right even if she has no idea about architecture. But if the proportions are off, the child will pick that up too, because every building also exudes energy, either of unease or comfort. So we have quite a big responsibility as well. I always say doctors have it easier than us. Their mistakes get buried, but our mistakes will always be there for everyone to see.

With one residence per floor and a host of bespoke luxury services, Lodha Altamount is the epitome of unrestricted luxury. Designed by Hadi Teherani, and a part of the Lodha group’s Luxury Collection that has homes present at only the globe’s most-coveted locations, Lodha Altamount is the last word in luxury in India. For more information about Lodha Altamount, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Lodha by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff

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