Bestselling latest books from Indian authors in English like Sudha Murthy, Shashi Tharoor, Rajdeep Sardesai, Arundhati Roy and Chetan Bhagat are popular.

Sale of illegally photocopied books on trains What do authors have to say
Features Publishing Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - 12:54

By Aswin Sekhar

If you travel by sleeper class or the general compartment on trains in south India, it is a pretty common sight to see book vendors leaving piles of books on the seats for passengers to select from.

The vendors travel the entire length of the train rotating these books meticulously so that everyone gets to see and pick from a variety of options. Moreover, it is common to see many fellow passengers buying a book or two from them to make their journey stimulating for the travel-weary brain or to just while away the time.

On the surface, this whole process sounds like an extremely desirable and intellectually rich thing to happen for travellers, authors and publishers – like some romantic travelling bookshop. However, the crucial point to note is: most of these books are illegal, pirated, photocopied versions of popular books from multiple languages.

A quick glance at these books and you can easily notice the pathetic quality of paper, printing and the dull colours on the cover. Most of these are sold at throwaway prices in the range of Rs 30 to Rs 60, whereas in the real market the books cost anywhere between Rs 200 and Rs 600. So, it is clear that these cheap versions of photocopied books are sold at one-tenth the market price set by publishers and authors. This is one of the biggest (yet under-reported) intellectual property thefts in our country.

Bestselling authors and books are most popular

About one-third of the books in this black market are usually Indian classics in English and in the vernacular (depending on the state(s) through which the train passes), such as Mahatma Gandhi, RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond and so on (in English) and MT Vasudevan Nair, Basheer, Padmarajan and so on (when a train runs through Kerala).

The next one-third are the bestselling books from contemporary foreign authors like Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, JK Rowling and so on, who are blissfully unaware of this parallel universe of illegal copies of their writing! The final one-third are the bestselling latest books from Indian authors in English like Sudha Murthy, Shashi Tharoor, Rajdeep Sardesai, Sanjaya Baru, Arundhati Roy, Chetan Bhagat and so on.

If you observe the variety and choice of books in these travelling train markets, one can see that they are well-researched and updated in terms of popularity and taste of Indians depending on the region. But having said all this, it is important to note that this is one of the biggest disservice any industry can do to the hard work and efforts of the authors in question. Such a parallel and illegal economy and sales of their books can deeply impact the legitimate volume of sales from the publishers and distributors side.

Can the authors do anything about it?

When asked about this issue, Sudha Murthy, noted philanthropist and author who writes in Kannada and English, replies, “We [authors] are helpless and don’t know what to do. I have myself found my books sold at very cheap prices in Delhi. Sometimes I just think let those poor people survive because of my books. However, in spite of all these issues, the legal copies of my books are still sold in high numbers which makes me happy.”

Obviously such a genteel reply is expected from someone as generous and humane as Sudha Murthy, but this issue of blatant violation of copyright laws goes much deeper. It is time we, Indians, collectively stand up against such this menace of misusing authors’ property rights.

Dr Shashi Tharoor, noted author, politician and former UN top official, agrees with Sudha Murthy in that authors are helpless in such cases due to the poor enforcement of intellectual property rights in India. Both these authors’ books are rampantly sold illegally on Indian trains.

Dr Tharoor remarks, “In some cases, even reputed online retailers like Amazon have given a platform (one would hope unknowingly) to people selling knock-offs! Take for example the case of my recent book, An Era of Darkness, which is only meant to be available in hardback in India at the moment, but there have been a number of instances where people have bought knock-off paperback copies of the book through Amazon – we know this because some of them have then approached me to sign the book!”

These instances clearly show that this problem is deep-rooted and much more widespread than we think. Millions of illegal, cheap, photocopied versions are circulating in the Indian market without the knowledge of the respective authors and publishers. It is also reported that these illegal sellers have a research team to find which are the bestselling books and authors depending on the region and the timeframe.

“In general, a lot more work needs to be done to give enforcement more teeth on IP rights matters,” adds Dr Tharoor.

Poor enforcement of IP rights by government

Because these illegal networks are run by research teams, it is not impossible for the government to tackle and end this menace – if there is a will from the side of the officials. After all, it is clear from train journeys that this is not just one or two random obscure poor individuals who run this on a local scale. There is a systemic pattern encompassing different cities, states and trains; we are talking about thousands of books and hundreds of authors if we look at the entire country.

“Books should be circulated as widely as possible and made accessible to millions, but pirated copies are a no no…” comments Rajdeep Sardesai, well-known journalist and author whose bestselling book on the Indian elections is being illegally circulated on Indian trains and street markets for a long time.

It has to be pointed out that most Indian travellers and shoppers are gullible in such matters. Either they are not aware that these copies are pirated or they do not understand the long-term impact of problems relating to copyright laws. Left to themselves, most Indians would happily buy anything if it is cheap and easily accessible. So it is left to the Indian establishment to come up with ways to tackle these issues related to protection of Intellectual Property rights of authors and artists. The same issue applies to pirated audio CDs, VCDs and DVDs as well.

It is about time that there is a serious debate on strengthening of copyright laws, patents with Indian officials looking into this pivotal issue with some wisdom and grit.

Dr Aswin Sekhar is an Indian astrophysicist based in Norway.

(Views expressed are the author’s own)

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