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Free knowledge versus freedom of the market

 Garga Chatterjee |  2012-09-12 23:17:57.0  |  New Delhi

Free knowledge versus freedom of the market

It is perhaps not a co-incidence that two events happened almost simultaneously in Delhi. One was the final hearing at the Supreme Court of the Glivec patent case, which has now been rescheduled for September. This case involves Novartis’ contestation of what qualifies as a significant innovation of an existing product, to be deemed separately patentable. Novartis considers Indian statutes to be too stringent. The Indian statutes aim to prevent ‘evergreening’ – extending patents by making small changes and claiming them to be substantially different from the original. The other event was an August police raid on a photocopy shop [Rameshwari Photocopy Service] at the Delhi School of Economics and simultaneous legal proceedings initiated by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis. There is a common strand connecting these apparently disparate events – both involve multi-national business houses suing Indian entities for depriving them of their intellectual property rights benefits.

In the latter case, legally enshrined rights of the publishers were being violated. Anyone, whose university education and research was dependent on photocopies of copyrighted books and chapters, has been affected. A protest campaign has started to pressurise the publishing houses to withdraw the case against the photocopiers. This brings us to a deeper disease that goes beyond mere copyrights. 

Beyond generic textbooks, much of specialised and critical knowledge taught in Indian universities is either produced by the West or is commercially owned by entities in the West. This academic produce is largely unaffordable in the subcontinent. 

The faculty creates reading lists, oblivious how students will obtain the material. They are similar to doctors prescribing medicines irrespective of the patient’s paying capacity. The doctor, or the university faculty, maintains a glib adherence to the ‘highest standard’, for nothing makes them accountable to make education or healthcare accessible. They guard catacombs posturing as vibrant gardens, open and free. 

University faculties have continued to force students to bootleg while preaching academic freedom from 6th pay-commission padded perches. This is a scandal. In a stratified society, the elitism of the faculty, even in disciplines that ceaselessly extol their ‘sensitive’ approach to the human condition, is not surprising. 

What is surprising that students have not seriously confronted them. While they are angry with the three publishers who were behind the police raids, there is another self-serving elephant in the room that the students are being blind to.

As a point of illustration, the bio-data of full professors at the Department of History, at Delhi University, reveal that with the exception of a minority [like Amar Farooqui, Farhat Hasan, Sunil Kumar, Rampal Rana, R C Thakran et al], others have got some or much of their major works published by the very same publishing behemoths who want to keep photocopies out of their own students’ hands. This pattern is replicated across disciplines. Does the faculty plan to make their own work freely available for download? Surely access to scholarship is at least as important as excellence in scholarship! The choice of publisher for one’s scholarly book lies with the individual to whom society owes the person his/her monthly paycheck. Feigned helplessness in these matters is characteristic of social parasites with personal ambitions. That is the deep politics of the academic elite, whatever the public posturing.

 In a society of great inequities, this is obliviousness to the social locus of academic production is not simple laziness but an inability to see through the exclusion practiced by oneself. With such access barriers, unsurprisingly, sons and daughters of professors are more likely to continue down the ‘academic’ path than the unfortunate ‘photocopy’ castes. But Arjuna’s ‘merit’ cannot be excuse for Ekalavya’s destruction.

This continues because the elite has long created a separate world where books are cheap, talk is cheaper. Having retracted from public spaces like government hospitals and pavements, they have created a parallel world where they can do without those. That is why we have university ‘reading lists’ irrespective of legal affordability. Academic publishers are professional businesses – they depend on making money by selling books. Understandably, photocopying hurts their bottom-line. 

But publishers do not write books, academics do. Can people not expect that publicly paid academics make affordability and accessibility a criterion for their publication? In the Western academia, universities and academic bodies are making large-scale moves towards open access publication. Harvard, with its war-chest in billions of dollars, is leading the way for making research more accessible. Till now, there is no such concerted move from the browns. 

Are they so rich? Where is their much-vaunted ‘inclusive growth’ or is that reserved for duels that help carve out a niche when engaging with the West? Freedom of thought and expression also assumes the freedom to access thoughts and expressions. 

Cutting off broad access to academic material is as good as killing the university just like cutting off access to generic drugs is called policy-driven genocide. [IPA]

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