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Jan 20, 2011 at 06:13pm IST

Cheap books or end of Indian writing?

If Indian lawmakers accept the new measures that have been proposed in India's Copyright Act, they may solve many of Bollywood's problems over intellectual property rights with respect to the music and lyrics of film songs. However, perhaps more by accident than by design, they may also give India's English language publishing industry sleepless nights.

Scheduled to be passed during the forthcoming Budget session of the Indian Parliament, the new measures envisage turning the country into a free market for books published in any part of the world. The way the law works now, a publisher has to acquire territorial rights for India before making a book available for sale in the country. From Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri to Dan Brown and Stephen King, a publisher must specifically have the Indian rights for each individual book by any author.

But under the new version of the law, such rights will no longer be necessary. Like Singapore, Hong Kong or Dubai, any book published anywhere in the world can be legally sold in India. There will be no such thing as Indian territorial rights any more. Predicts Thomas Abraham, who heads Hachette India: "There will be free inflow of books from foreign countries, at dirt-cheap prices." The near-unanimous view from publishers: this will be bad for readers, writers and publishers alike.

A change proposed in the Copyright Act has Indian publishers worried.

But why should the prospect of "dirt-cheap books" be bad for Indian consumers? Well, what Indian publishers fear is a flood of remaindered books. These are copies of books that their original publishers can no longer sell in their home markets, and sell off by the weight - literally. Thousands of copies of such books - remaindered after six months or so following their publication - can be bought by traders and then sold at low prices throughout India.

For Indian publishers, this is a nightmare, for buyers are expected will flock to these low-priced editions, ignoring their titles. This will put their entire business in jeopardy, in turn severely affecting their ability of commission and publish Indian authors. As a result, warn the publishers, Indian writing in English could die a swift death.

The new law, explains V.K. Karthika, publisher and editor-in-chief of Harper-Collins India, will take away the reason for Indian publishers to pay Indian writers for the right to sell their books in India. "After all," she argues, "a foreign publisher whom the same writer has signed up with could also sell the books in India, robbing the Indian publisher of exclusive rights." In these circumstances, she warns, author-royalties and advances could both take a hit.

Whether the opening up of the market, and the removal of the need to have rights for India before selling in India, actually benefits readers is debatable, say Indian publishers. This could, however, be a defensive position - after all, every industry where trade barriers have been lowered has seen lower prices, too. It has also forced Indian companies to innovate.

However, the publishers are still hoping - and discreetly lobbying - for the changes in the law not to be effected. Insiders say these changes may not be all that important for the lawmakers, who are actually focused on the Bollywood-related measures. So, adequate representation even at this stage, they hope, could lead to results.

Interestingly, Bollywood is strongly represented among India's lawmakers, with Javed Akhtar, Hema Malini and Shatrughan Sinha, among others, being Parliamentarians. If the publishing sector managed to enlist the authors among Parliamentarians to their cause, the eloquence of writer-MPs like Shashi Tharoor and Somnath Chatterjee, for instance, could prove effective.

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