Searching for research

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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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.