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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.