Alpana Roy on De-Colonizing Copyright and Cultural Policy

In this set of 4 posts- I shall be discussing my dilemmas from the Kacha Badam Controversy. The first post covered my thoughts on the delusion that this whole controversy has produced and the need to revamp its factual narrative. The second post covered my thoughts on the hard case that this factual narrative exposes- something I cannot really grapple with yet. The third post brainstormed thoughts on resolving this hard case. Finally, this fourth post will, in the backdrop of these three posts, discuss an amazing paper by Prof. Alpana Roy titled- “Copyright: a colonial doctrine in a post-colonial age” and how her thesis has an important role to play in figuring out/ or rather even further complicating this hard case.


In this final post, I am discussing, Prof. Alpana Roy’s paper titled Copyright: A colonial doctrine in a post-colonial age, in the backdrop of the discussions we have had so far. I also had an opportunity of discussing this article in the Critical Interdisciplinary Perspectives to IP reading group hosted by Prof. Anjali Vats, Prof. David Jefferson, among others- which led to a lot of thoughts pushback, and questions. I shall try and put them out here This is also my expression of gratitude to all who turned up for the reading group.

Prof. Alpana Roy’s article, published in the Copyright Reporter in 26th Volume 4th Issue, in December 2008, discusses IP from a sharp post-colonial lens. It is a provocative piece of writing, to say the least.

Setting the stage, Roy clears the air on what colonialism implies and what constitutes de-colonial thinking. She clearly puts it forth that the socio-economic exploitation of the so called “periphery” or alternate, need not always be directly political or dominated by the military. It can also involve continued subordination through the exploitation of the political economy to adversely affect capabilities. She mentions the prevalence of colonial thought in law-making and how it pervades global norms, in sheer ignorance of alternate indigenous realities. This narrative somehow resembles the work of the amazing late Prof. Keith Aoki, on what he calls Neo-Colonialism, and in the context of IP states that- transnational IP system erode concepts of sovereignty and self-determination.

Putting the article in context, Roy turns to International IP Agreements and reflects on the role of these “multifaceted projects” or dominant narratives which primarily reflect/mirror particular moments in the history of Western cultural practice. She emphasizes the importance of this by projecting the dissonance of the norms in agreements like Berne, with nations outside the West. She asserts that Copyright remains a foreign concept in many cultures, and many societies take an extremely radical view on what constitutes property and can be the subject of individualistic private property. In this context, it is important to reflect on the “independent” v. “inter-dependent and inherently social conceptions of the self (the idea of a “family”)” which vary across societies – with the West bending towards the former and Asian societies towards the latter. The law, as it is in its current “global” framings, only accommodates the former, completely ignoring the latter.

She then goes on to talk about a few of these individual dissonant features: (i) print culture (ii) the idea of piracy as against copying and sharing as a sign of respect and recognition- and mentions how such norms being globalized are nothing but a symbol of a dominant narrative used to foster a “one-way traffic around the notion of desirable culture”- consequently moving towards cultural imperialism. It is at this point where she makes her most important argument about this whole system having a far deeper impact than the earlier forms of colonialism, imperialism, or simple tourism, as it tends/attempts to alter the source of the self.

Hereon, she gets into the hard case by discussing the example of “Return to innocence”, supposedly a Taiwanese tribal song, which was appropriated out of a performance by 30 indigenous Taiwanese performers who were invited to perform across Europe by the French Ministry of Culture. A significant portion of these songs was used by a German music entrepreneur and was then also recorded by Enigma- and sold as “his copyright”, without any due accreditation or financial compensation for the use of the said song. She primarily uses this example to first- expose the political economy of cultural practice, and thereafter and most importantly, the political economy of law on culture- and who gets to enforce and who doesn’t. This is important in the context of the debate on print vs. aural culture, as well as in the context of the argument that accesses to a platform to showcase determines who gets to ‘own’. What I am concerned about, in this example, is not the appropriation, but rather the possessive claim of Enigma over this output- dispossessing many others who could have been the actual originators of the expression and should have had the ability to use, build on, or get any financial remuneration in respect thereof. It is in this context that the appropriation is important to be addressed.

Roy uses the “Return of innocence” case to contend how indigenous works fail to fulfill individualistic notions of property rights and are dispossessed from their performers through dissonant norms. She uses this to show how western law, and its hegemonic transposition is highly inappropriate, results in fictitious commodification, and continues to perpetuate the idea of the historic “other” even in law and policymaking. She aligns with Rosemary Coombe who argues that neoliberal conceptions of copyright do not accommodate cultural differences that are difficult to be formulated in terms of a commodity, and are hence difficult to encompass within the conceptual frameworks of “modernity”.

Roy also refers to oral research outputs and argues that as soon as someone publishes all the oral research output they get copyright over it- dispossessing participants and researchers who contributed and undertook research orally but did not/could not really “fix the output in the printed/published form”. On this aspect of fixation, during the discussion with the reading group, Prof. Ann Bartow put forth an interesting question as to- how do rules of evidence work in aural societies? – Historically mapping the same could be an interesting analogy to look at while discussing the irrelevance of fixation norms in non-western societies.

Roy then moves on to how these western cultural norms were exported to colonies by European colonizers as a part of the package of colonization, most prominently in the 18th and the 19th Century. She states that pirating foreign work was still prevalent in free-er countries given the US only joined the Berne until 1989 and offered little protection. To foreign authors until then. Unfortunately, those who were colonized had little say in such policy for their own capability development (I discuss this aspect of IP Gradualism in detail in my paper here).

Roy then moves to the strongest part of her paper where she argues the relevance of printing technology and entrepreneurs in respect thereof in centralizing and transplanting these western norms abroad.  She talks about how printing was essential for the colonial and imperial projects of Europe as their empires could not have survived without the spread of propaganda, religious tacit, commercial documents, maps, charts, etc., among the natives. Here comes the relevance of copyright. She argues that as a form of communication- printing, unlike oral communication, has a tendency of universalizing ideas- and disseminating information through identical texts and making them truths by imposing them through “violent hierarchies” facilitated by the tool of colonialism and the Prospero complex it produces. She talks about how most of the so-called “universal truths” coincided with this enlightenment period of solitary creation and printing technology – that is basically the rise of print medium and subsequently the law of copyright. Importantly she reiterates that this exchange was not happening among “equals” but rather as an imposition in a colonial setup.

Upon political decolonization, Roy writes that there were some modest attempts at resisting western copyright by the Global South, in the context of the inability to translate and develop knowledge, however not to any structural yield. Thes prevailing norms have not only been normalized but have, through TRIPS, also been universally accepted (read: imposed), and are now a part of public international law.

Moving on to a consequential analysis of these norms, embedded with capitalism and the global political economy, Roy quotes Butalia, to argue that it is impossible to separate the world of Copyright law from the world of politics, as knowledge, culture, and access are inextricably linked with power, power is linked with money- and both of those are linked with history– something which cannot be repaired easily. In my opinion- this brings us back to the hard case and the relevance of reparative solutions to be intermingled with systemic change and to look at the same as complementary rather than as an either/or binary.

Roy finally concludes by referring to how copyright is nothing but a tool to merely further the trade and capitalist interests of western societies. However, a consequential corollary of this, which Roy misses in her analysis, is the impact of such a tool on identities and cultural estrangement- the “othering” of non-marketable culture. We might be celebrating Bhuban and his expression today, but that is only because he and many others like him, who do not fit in to this marketable system have been othered from cultural identity framing discourses and economic benefits in respect thereof, for a long, long time. As Macneil argues, we cannot subordinate the subsistence of society itself to the laws of the market, and the interest of the marketers, as it disenfranchises humans of the ability to direct the trajectories of their social institutions. We cannot, as a society afford to do this, as the same is nothing estranging identities.

To conclude these posts, the takeaway I seek to present is-  the need for scholarship, research and thought on –

How to ensure that identity interests of self-determination (including remunerative concerns), especially of those who have been denied the same for long, are retained-  without resorting to dissonant logics of property rights as tools of affirmative action?

Hope we have enough food for thought! Do reach out if anyone wishes to discuss any of this. I am available at

Part 1- here

Part 2- here

Part 3- here

Resolving the ‘Hard Case’? You can try the best you can!

In this set of 4 posts- I shall be discussing my dilemmas from the Kacha Badam Controversy. The first post covered my thoughts on the delusion that this whole controversy has produced and the need to revamp its factual narrative. The second post covered my thoughts on the hard case that this factual narrative exposes- something I cannot really grapple with yet. This third post brainstorms thoughts on resolving this ‘hard case’. And finally, the fourth post will, in the backdrop of these three posts, discuss an amazing paper by Prof. Alpana Roy titled- “Copyright: a colonial doctrine in a post-colonial age” and how her thesis has an important role to play in figuring out/ or rather even further complicating this hard case.


In this post, I shall discuss thoughts on the hard case, and why it is really hard. I will also discuss my preliminary ideas on resolving its dilemmas. To put things into perspective-

Should we be celebrating Bhuban’s remunerative win (which supposedly is because of Copyright law) or should we be questioning the structural acceptance of a copyright system that is significantly dissonant from the ontological reality of cultural practice in India – a system that has merely been transposed from the west due to the state of law and the global political economy?

The hard case is really hard as one of the major issues that come with a structural challenge to the system- is its ignorance of the years of inequality and identity politics associated with cultural production. We can never crawl back to ground zero. The structure of copyright law, its commodifiability, and dissonance with alternate cultural practices has already produced a skew in visibility- which cannot be discounted. A structural challenge to the system would result in an unequal commons- resolving none of our equality concerns.

In other words, although by allowing sharing, derivation, and remixing to make it compliant with other ethnographic realities, a structural challenge to copyright’s individualistic norms, does help substitute individualistic possessiveness, however, it does little to narrow the privilege gap resulting from the prevailing system. Structurally challenging copyright norms may allow for wider cultural engagement- but they do little in remedying the lack of engagement or the skew in practice that is already persisting. Anyone who has, as a result of the prevailing system, attained a comparative advantage, continues to enjoy the same – given investment capabilities and the political economy of cultural practice. In line with this, how do we ensure that Bhuban gets his due remuneration to survive?

Proponents who believe in revamping the copyright system internally and allowing economic recognition of artists like Bhuban through prevailing norms- as a more practical solution, maybe right to the extent that it allows for these individuals to get recognition and helps balance out the inequalities to some extent.  These proponents also believe that property-like rights are the only retributive solution to the issues created by property-like exclusivities themselves. Madhavi Sundar and Anupam Chander convincingly argue, in their paper- The Romance of the Public Domain, that leaving these ignored cultural expressions in the public domain does not help satisfy societal ideals and rather perpetuates inequality by allowing those with the capability to misappropriate (not dispossess, but rather get a better benefit due to access privileges) to freely do it. It denies them a claim to self-determination. They, thus, argue for a property rights-based liability system (no control but an objectively defined fee on every use) to continue in favor of those who have been denied long-standing claims- to be able to re-project a scenario where we start from ground zero. For them, Bhuban getting this remunerative benefit would be a deal worth it from an overall welfarist perspective.

For me, this is something I continue to be unclear about, because fundamentally – using a property-rights-oriented solution to solve problems that are a result of the long-standing prominence of the same system- is paradoxical. As Amy Kapczynski argues, “why should we view a collective despot as an improvement over an individual despot?”

 I do agree that Prof. Sundar and Chander only endorse a liability model– where contours of exclusive possession and control do not strictly apply, and rather a fee is to be paid for every use However, even this, as a tool of affirmative action, does reify- principally the same tool of exclusivity. It also ignores how the idea of “originality” of a “work”– the genesis of a “mine” claim in the first place- is a myth- and a result of privileges of access (to showcase). This is applicable to both the claims of individuals and communities. One can never really prove that an expression is theirs and only theirs- and not a result/derivation of someone else’s. Once again- possession results in dispossession (often of the unknown).

Further, a liability rule, in my opinion, does not really address the main issue here- i.e., one of misappropriation of identities. Commodification has most definitely denied many non-commodifiable forms a claim to money- but most importantly it has estranged identities. The liability rules do not really help resolve that aspect.

Rosemary Coombe provides another interesting angle to this hard case in her paper- Ethnographic Explorations of Intellectual property– more so from an anthropological perspective. She maps arguments of the latter school of thought which say that even collective ownership dispossesses and reifies western liberal thoughts in culture impeding cultural engagement and ignoring ethnographic realities. She says that the whole idea of ownership in the binary of the individual and collective ought to be challenged from a hybridized perspective- and needs to be looked at by examining the actual reality of how culture is practiced, rather than requiring to mold cultural practices to fit in. She endorses the need for the decolonization of identities, as well as legal norms, by suggesting a more personhood-oriented solution to the aspect of reparations, as against one guarded within economical concerns- as was the case with the liability system. She argues for a system of benefit sharing to recognize the “cultural rights ” of people practicing alternate cultures rather than centering on a solution from an economic point of view. The idea is to endorse the personhood, identities, and development of these diasporic, hidden individuals and communities. Her focus is on ensuring that these identities are not dispossessed as against cultural outputs not being dispossessed. – given we can never be sure of what was the genesis of the cultural output in reality.

For me, as brewing thoughts, a few methods of resolving this hard case without resorting to a binary could include – primarily – decommodifying culture and making expressions inalienable, especially in favor of corporates who seek to capitalize and earn profits out of the most commodifiable and marketable identities/expressions. (see part 1) This potentially could resolve a huge hierarchical concern, at an institutional level, in respect of the ability to capitalize/market and showcase culture. However, I do agree that it does little on the aspect of the performer’s individual economic standing and capability to promote or be visible.

Another area that could be considered, as a part of future inquiry, could be getting rid of the idea of authorship of a work, and treating all expressions as performances- given we can never really figure out whether one is the “originator” of the content, but we can always associate the identity of the performer- with a particular performance. This avoids impeding downstream creation, especially in communities that depend on it, as well as ensures that if the performance, as a whole, is utilized as against merely the content within the performance (musical and literary “work” in current copyright framings), there is some remunerative benefit accruing to the previous performer for the associated identity thereto. So essentially, Bhuban cannot claim exclusivity over Kacha Badam, but if someone uses his performance of Kacha Badam substantially (Ann Bartow standard), he would have a remunerative claim (see here for a study on compensation systems) for the use of the cultural identity associated with his expression. This identity cannot be alienated from him in favor of any corporate entity. 

Coupled with this, maybe limiting this remunerative claim to only those performers who are a part of the “traditional knowledge”/ alternate culture herd- i.e., ones that have been denied a claim to be able to be visible for long, could serve the reparative goal sought by the primary school of thought. However, I have my doubts about the practicality and the acceptance of this, especially in light of the strong globally intuitive resistance to affirmative action policies in support of concerns of reparative equality, sometimes co-related to substantive equality.

Finally, another interesting area to build scholarly agendas on the side of equality in cultural policy and tools of affirmative action in respect thereof could be algorithmic support on the internet. By using tools of an affirmative bias in favor of performances/identities which have effectively been rendered invisible for the longest, a slow transformation could potentially take shape. Such cooperative responsibility from tech platforms could effectively help significantly revamp identity politics, and allow them to capitalize on scale benefits that come with it. As has been argued by Monson et al, it most definitely is technically possible to code algorithms that promote exposure to diverse content and highlight alternate perspectives- something which favorably happened in Bhuban’s case.

I do however acknowledge that these proposed solutions do not really resolve much, given hierarchies exist even within alternate contested identities. They do not have any sort of an enormous potential to resolve long-standing hierarchies which exist both due to copyright and beyond copyright concerns. But the intent of these posts is to have people engage in alternate cultural policy framings, without giving in to the binary of the internalist and structural critiques of the law in the context of this hard case. There is a need for social justice scholars to stop romanticizing either side of this hard case. In any case, we cannot afford to be celebrating the delusion produced by this Kacha Badam instance. 

In the next and the final post I shall, in the backdrop of this discussion, write my thoughts on Prof. Alpana Roy’s paper (more on the structural critiquing side) titled- Copyright: A colonial doctrine in a post-colonial age.

Part 1- here

Part 2-here

Part 4- here

“Kacha Badam” debate presents the Indian ‘Hard Case’?

In this set of 4 posts- I shall be discussing my dilemmas from the Kacha Badam Controversy. The first post covered my thoughts on the delusion that this whole controversy has produced and the need to revamp its factual narrative. This second post covers my thoughts on the hard case that this factual narrative exposes- something I cannot really grapple with yet. The third post shall brainstorm thoughts on resolving this hard case. And finally, the fourth post will, in the backdrop of these three posts, discuss an amazing paper by Prof. Alpana Roy titled- “Copyright: a colonial doctrine in a post-colonial age” and how her thesis has an important role to play in figuring out/ or rather even further complicating this hard case.

PART – 2

To put the idea of the hard case (not in the Dworkinian sense of “principle” but rather qua policy)  in context, I would refer to how I began thinking of it. While reading the wonderful Prof. Anjali Vats’s book- The color of creatorship, I came across an interesting narrative in the context of the Blurred Lines case in the US (Williams v. Bridgeport Music Inc. (2015)). What Vats mentions is that reading the Blurred Lines case is a complex negotiation in the backdrop of a legal system that consistently disenfranchises Black creators of the ability to come across as winners. The case was a historic instance, hailed by many, where, in a copyright infringement action, a Black creator was given a favorable judgment on infringement over, as Vats mentions, “white vultures” of the music industry. This was in a situation that was debatable from the lens of the infringement standards practiced in the US (given it involved ambient sounds). Now- there were two schools of thought that emerged after this case (both belonging to the larger roof of social justice scholars– however taking completely opposite stands on this issue):

The case was significantly hailed by a school of thought as a moment of reparation for black creators, who were significantly appropriated for a larger part of music history, without any sort of monetary compensation. It was an instance helping move toward a legal remedy for more than decades of appropriation of black artists. It was also appreciated as an instance that recognized the protectability of black musical practices.


A set of critics of this judgment (the other school of thought) kept their focus on a rather structural argument concerning the colonial/western nature of Copyright policy, arguing that the said instance does nothing to repair concerns of equality and in effect reifies and attempts to normalize concepts outside black culture into black culture (in-contextual transposition). Hailing the judgment also estranges the fact that the verdict is extremely harmful to appropriative cultural practices like sampling, hip hop, reggaeton, etc. (mostly practiced by black musicians, or loosely non-western musicians). It reinforces racial capitalism, and a structural racial skew in legal interpretation, against normatively black practices which focus on re-use, and derivation rather than “original creation”. According to them, internalizing could never ever remedy/repair a copyright system that is racist to the core– and there was a need to structurally challenge it rather than supporting the expansion of the doctrine.

This brings us to the hard case.  Prof. Vats, in her book, presents this hard case in an interesting manner by writing as to how this situation was a seemingly forced choice for individuals invested in social justice outcomes out of this case and IP in general. It was either (i) embracing nostalgia and reparation for Gaye or (ii) a commitment to the musical innovation of hip hop (a non-western, non-white, non-individualistic art form dissonant with traditional principles of copyright law).

It was essentially a hard case to choose between “more” copyrights supporting the interests of black artists within the system of copyright law that exists, or a structural change in copyright according to actual epistemological realities or non-white cultures.

Using this, she turned to the de-colonial notion of creatorship and protection, outside the romanticism of commodification and the racial capitalism that it produces. She argues in her last chapter: “Advocating for intellectual property egalitarianism in a way that is legally and politically legible, requires pushing back against accepted IP doctrines, which conceal racial (and colonial) logics.” It is basically a debate between- internalizing possessive individualism (and looking for a solution within) v. structural questioning, which of course may not be a binary, but could end up eroding each other’s territories. We shall get more into this in Part-4.

Against this backdrop, the motion essentially is – Does the celebration of a black artist (Plaintiff) getting a judgment in their favor on copyright infringement, reflect a vantage point in the estrangement of cultural practices, norms and tendencies, through the neo-colonial tool that is western copyright?

Coming to the Kacha Badam issue, and the relevance of this backdrop therein:

I completely subscribe to and endorse the need to ensure that Copyright policy allows Bhuban to protect/recoup his remunerative interest in this performance, given his economic state/ standing, and the surprising visibility that has only been made possible due to the virality provoked by the long tail of the internet. Even record labels nowadays take their investment decisions depending on this viral tendency and potential. Prior to the internet, there was effectively a grand denial to creators/artists from remote villages in India to a claim to participate in visible culture and to be able to exploit them economically- especially due to the need to satisfy the aesthetic preferences of record companies before getting any visibility. I also agree that given folk artists have been denied such protection for the longest time, such remunerative benefit and commodification would help Bhuban do economically better, and will also recognize the copyrightability claims of such artists (I am still unsure as to whether we can categorize Bhuban’s performance as folk, but the song’s tonality does reflect folkish tendencies). I also understand the intuitional trigger and reparational thought in favor of Bhuban due to the long denial of visibility to such artists, his economic state, and the just desserts philosophy that comes with it.

I further subscribe to the fact that – those remixing and using Bhuban’s performance, attributing it to themselves, and in some cases also claiming copyrights over them (exclusivity over exploitation) to market using social media platforms/reels and other mediums, ought to pay license charges to Bhuban and attribute him- given the realistic state of the capitalistic society we live in. The possibility of remixers (who enjoy a better capability to capitalize or better access to visibility) using copyright to claim monopolies on their derived output- and earn money without paying any license fee to Bhuban, can never be discounted. The possibility of them misappropriating something linked to Bhuban’s identity can also never be discounted.

These are some extremely important real-world issues and do effectively endorse this thought of addressing the remunerative and reparative interests of Bhuban and such artists using Copyright law and its possessive individualism– as due compensation for the years of denial of economic compensation over such output and a lack of equal visibility.

But… comes the hard case.

A non-internalist/structural critique of this whole controversy would be-

Isn’t the compensating mechanism, mentioned above, normalizing a legal system of exclusivity and possessive individualism -over cultural expressions? Isn’t this a purely western normative ideal, against the norm of sharing – practiced widely in Indian folk cultures, forms of music, musical tendencies, and practices? How does it reflect as a consequence on the idea of imitative musical learning as a mode of pedagogy- which is extremely prevalent in indigenous and alternate musical practices? How does it also reflect on the romanticism of individualistic IP policy and its transposition on dissonant communitarian cultural practices/societies?

In India, indigenous cultural expressions have never really aligned with property-based exclusivities. In fact, to the contrary, there has been explicit resistance to recognizing this possessive individualism (see here, here, here,  here (accompanying note 16) and here), by practicing norms of anonymity while disseminating content, practicing imitation based learning as a core form of pedagogy (here, here, here and here) and by rather focussing on communitarian practice and performance of cultural expressions (here, here and here). For a general critique of the idea of possessive individualism – in the context of Indian culture and identity- see here (Chapter 8). Jaszi and Woodmansee have also, in detail, discussed the dissonance of individualistic norms of authorship and various cultures (which they refer to as “traditional” cultures, although I prefer- alternate cultures).  

The problem with internalizing copyright norms, which are premised on exclusive possession, is that it often relegates ontologically non-commodifiable/ non-individualistic/ community outputs and expressions, to the verge of cultural estrangement and diminishing. Expressions like folktales, ballads, chants, proses, alternate musical practices, religious musical expressions, Indian Classical and Carnatic music, etc., which involve aural transmission or are derivative and collective/communitarian creations do not fall within this commodifiable idea of a creation that is copyrighted and economically transacted in a market setup. This often results in cultural freezing. I, not for once, propose to say that the law should rather commodify such communitarian perspectives as well (as it has been doing in the case of traditional knowledge lately). I rather contend that this normative dissonance ought to be realized in the law and should be remedied by tailoring the law to foster these cultural practices rather than impede them by commodifying and altering their ontological nature in the first place. Transcribing western copyright norms, and in fact romanticizing them (its expansion and role) in cases of completely dissonant expressions, as in the case of Bhuban’s work, ignores the incompatibility of cultural expressions with core principles of western copyright norms- (i) fixation, (ii) individuated authorship, (iii) romanticism of originality and non-derivation (iv) exclusive possession, (v) author performer divide.  It also results in cultural alteration- merely for commercial advantage. In my opinion, such transposition of non-compliant norms takes the shape of a neo-colonial tool that does nothing but reflect the political economy of framing the law (in favor of western commercial interests by the neo-liberal tendencies of the western society). It also affects the political economy of culture and cultural practices. It shows a skew towards market fundamentalism, even in cases of cultures- which were never really supposed to be/ fit to be marketed in an industrial setup. We have to realize this and structurally challenge this.

Bhuban’s musical tone reflects a clear folk tonality, wherein it isn’t easy to assume originality, lest it shall devoid a majority of the members of a community, and dispossess them a claim to something that is normative to the community practice. Every possession results in dispossession. Even assuming the said musical work to be original, the social process of creation and the privilege of being able to access an audience can never be discounted. Romanticizing and transposing individualistic norms of this sort- denies many (who lack such access to showcase, get showcased, and receive) a participative claim to cultural exchange. Moreover, western copyright norms often seek justification on the idea of incentives- i.e., the assumption that unless such rights are granted- one might not be incentivized to create. Well, for starters, Bhuban had no idea he had these copyrights when he performed. The generalization of such a utilitarian conception, in cultural policy, dismisses the fact that for many – music is merely a source of communication and expression and not something which requires any incentive to be produced (some interesting scholarship on this facet here, here, here, here and here) However, this, of course, does not discount the fact that for many, who seek to practice music professionally and are not able to due to economic concerns forcing them to marginal sources of revenue (avenues which guarantee better economic condition), such incentives matter. What I seek to challenge is the generalization of these incentives as being the norm.

So, coming back,  how do we resolve this hard case? To be honest, I don’t know. But it may not be an either/or situation as it seems to be. We shall be looking at this in the next post.

Part- 1 – here.

Part 3- here.

Part 4- here.

Clearing out delusions from the “Kacha Badam” controversy:

A week to go for World IP Day. Last year, I posted a piece on this platform on why this ain’t no occasion to celebrate. I shall be reiterating the same here, albeit, in context.

In this set of 4 posts- I shall be discussing my dilemmas from the Kacha Badam Controversy. This first post covers my thoughts on the delusion that this whole controversy has produced and the need to revamp its factual narrative. The second post shall cover my thoughts on the hard case that this factual narrative exposes- something I cannot really grapple with yet. The third post brainstorms thoughts on resolving this hard case. And finally, the fourth post will, in the backdrop of these three posts, discuss an amazing paper by Prof. Alpana Roy titled- “Copyright: a colonial doctrine in a post-colonial age” and how her thesis has an important role to play in figuring out/ or rather even further complicating this hard case.

PART – 1

It has been a while since the Kacha Badam Controversy took shape. Readers from India would know what it entails, and in any case, this video does a good job at influencing thoughts about the whole debate. However, to put this issue in the context of its implications on cultural and copyright policy, here are the events that took place and how I see them (it might be an interesting hypo for Copyright classes):

A person Bhuban Badyakar, who earns his livelihood selling peanuts door to door, uses/sings a catchy musical tune to attract more consumers. The lyrics used along with his musical tune literally (in Hindi) says- “Kacha badam lelo” which when translated means “buy raw peanuts.” Some bystander in the village where he sells peanuts recorded him singing his catchy tune while selling peanuts, and posted it on social media websites over the internet (including YouTube). What followed is that the said video, including the “music and the lyrics” went viral on social media, and many people started to use, remix, recode, add dance moves, sing versions, and generate further content using it. The song became a viral sensation.

Upon being informed that, well, he could make money out of these uses and that others are making money out of recording and sharing his video, Bhuban reached out to the police in his village asking for his rightful musical dues.

Post this, a regional record label (Godhuli Bela Music), realizing the (i) virality of the video, (ii) economic state of the artist, and (iii) economic potential of aggressively exploiting an already viral work (under the scheme of the Indian Copyright Act), reached out to Bhuban for an assignment of all his rights in their favor, on the premise of a lump sum compensation of Rs. 3 Lakhs (around USD 3930). By this time, the song had already gone extremely viral and upon aggressive enforcement of copyrights, the amount of economic returns that could be garnered by Bhuban are a lot more than Rs. 3 Lakhs (no transformative use defense for non-personal uses of music in the Indian Copyright Act). However, this news of Bhuban even getting Rs. 3 lakhs (although at the cost of assigning away all his economic rights forever, without any scope of a termination of transfer existing in the Indian law) has been hailed by all saying – he got his rightful dues! Even the record label, after getting rights in a super-viral musical work assigned in its favor, put out a statement:

“The whole thought behind this project is to recognize and respect the original creator- Bhuban Badyakar”

As a consequence of this transfer, however, what has potentially been impeded is the ability of users/remixers/user-generated content creators to culturally interact with Bhuban’s work without paying a license fee to the record label (which being an investing business and not really someone who has created – would tend to exploit all money-making avenues in respect thereof). The prospect of royalties going back to Bhuban is also meek, given (i) the history of royalty disbursals in the case of Bollywood biggies (here, here, and here), let alone Bhuban, (ii) the actual state of royalty disbursal in India which amount to a mere 10-15% of the amounts earned by the assignee, and (iii) the interpretive question on the need of disbursing royalties when works are not incorporated in a film or a sound recording, in spite of a specific requirement under Section 19(3) of the Act for any assignment to compulsorily include “consideration and royalty”. However, the fact of the matter is that Bhuban is happy and famous and getting gigs– not because of the label- but because of the long tail of the internet. How does this reflect on copyright and cultural policy? (important reading here)

What comes into the foray from the above fact-view narrative is the delusion that the media has been making out of this incident, hailing it to be a huge win for Bhuban and the role of copyright policy in respect thereof (here and here). What it also brings out in perspective is the role of the existence of copyright law. What the tool of copyright law and its current framings in the Indian Act is doing at the moment- in this instance and many other instances- is benefitting no one else but a corporate entity.

Mind you- neither is the author getting their so-called– “rightful” dues – as was contemplated by the framers of the Act in their intent statement captured in the Rajya Sabha debates of 1955 and 2012 —nor are users, who seek to culturally interact, remix and produce transformative works for a wider variety of works for people to experience and for the broader cultural enrichment of the society (in terms of volume and diversity) getting to do the same- given a far greater potential of aggressive enforcement of copyrights by a corporate non-creating inventor, as against the actual author.

What is the point of having such a system? Is the law merely to benefit an investor, seeking to invest in already viral content, at the cost of the cultural enrichment of the society? No wonder the idea of Copyright, and its ideological symbolism of being hailed as an author’s prime tool, is nothing but one of the greatest canards of history.

I understand the argument that the author may be happy with whatever he has gotten, given Rs. 3 lakhs plus some meek royalties (if and when he gets that is) would be a huge sum for someone who used to sell peanuts + the amount of fame + ripple effect gigs, advertisements, etc. – but to me- that is exactly the problematic point:

If the author receives an amount “x” as the economic incentive to produce the work, in lieu of their copyrights, and they are happy with it (given the virality and prospects, etc.), what is the need for any further tax on the public to access the said work? Doesn’t the role of Copyright as a regulative policy end there? If there is no other recoupment for the author and the author is simultaneously happy, why more access fee in the name of either incentives or just desserts or whatever?

Especially considering the internet and its long tail, why is there for any need for a rate – x+y to be paid- where “y” merely goes to corporate investors seeking to make money out of aggressive enforcement of copyrights?

In my opinion, especially in the context of content that is already viral even before record labels/distributors/publishers step in, this additional amount “y” that is levied as a tax on users, is an unjustifiable deadweight loss and nothing else. The mere disbursal of a lump sum payment cannot be a ground to justify this deadweight loss as a desirable policy, given the undesirable tradeoff of a concurrent tax “y” and continued exclusivity in the hands of a corporate entity (non-creator). Maybe we need to figure out a way that this amount “x”, in Bhuban’s case Rs. 3,00,000, reaches out to him quickly from users directly- and maybe we need to figure out an efficient system in respect thereof- but allowing intermediation, assignments, and continued exclusivity (resulting in immeasurable further tax on users and downstream creators), just because a lump sum by an intermediary is easier- is not a ground to justify beyond incentive payments by users for access and use. It goes over and above the actual intent of copyright and is merely a problem of laze.

We ought to realize this and push for disintermediation in Copyright policy (banning assignments or alienation by authors in favor of corporates), especially in the era of the internet. But for disintermediation- we are gravely and adversely affecting cultural engagement, enrichment, and freedom- something which is paradoxical to the goal of copyright and cultural policy. In a copyright scheme where no transformative usage is recognized (unless it is for personal/private purposes, research purposes, or parodical/critical purposes), such change is all the more required to ensure that copyright incentives, which do not even go back to the author, do not freeze cultural engagement and democracy- or the ability of situated users to talk back and present their cultural narrative in an accommodative permissive cultural space.

This is FOR both the author and the user (aren’t they the same?), and only against a corporate investor- who ideally should really have no stake in Copyright policy, but unfortunately has the most. Who knows, as Oren Bracha argues– the history of IP (commodification of expressions (might actually be the history of capitalism, which is an unfortunate truth.

Part 2- On the hard case here.

Part 3- Resolving the hard case here.

Part 4- Alpana Roy on Decolonizing IP here.

Copyright Infringement is not a Cognizable and Non-bailable offense. It can never be. Period!

Note: This post, for a change, is in the context of a case law rendered by the Karnataka High Court in ANI Technologies Private Limited v. State of Karnataka holding Copyright infringement to be a Cognizable and Non-Bailable offense in Indian law. However, this post is much more than a legal comment on the interpretation resorted to by the High Court. Read on to find out more:

In a recent precedent from the Karnataka High Court, Copyright infringement involving an element of mens rea and qualifying within the contours of Section 63 of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, has been held, once again, to be a cognizable and non-bailable offense.  Legally, this judgment clearly goes to the teeth of the Delhi High Court’s (J. Bakhru’s) ruling in Anurag Sanghi v. State, where it was clearly held that these offenses have to be non-cognizable and bailable, even if one disagrees, due to the binding Supreme Court precedent in Avinash Bhosale v. Union of India (2007) 14 SCC 325 – where it was clearly held that “up to 3 years”, because of being inclusive of offenses which are punishable for less than 3 years, has to be read to be categorized in Item III of Part 2 of Schedule I to the CrPC. Any other interpretation would lead to a situation where even an offense where the punishment prescribed is less than 3 years, is rendered non-bailable which cannot be permissible as per the stipulation in the schedule. The Karnataka HC has clearly ignored this precedent, and its reliance by the Delhi HC in both Anurag Sanghi (supra) and GNCTD v. Naresh Kumar Garg, rendering the decision clearly per incuriam, i.e., in ignorance of binding law. In any case, the offense of Copyright Infringement being raised to a level of being non-bailable, inspite of other offenses in part I of Schedule 1 of CrPC which are punishable for 3 years (sl. No. 181, 193) being bailable, clearly goes to the teeth of the rationale expended by the Karnataka HC. Further, in case of ambiguity in the statute (the Copyright Act does not specifically mention whether the offense is cognizable or not, and provides punishment up to 3 years, which is sort of a “no-man’s land” and a cause of confusion), the rule of lenity requires an interpretation in favour of the accused to be taken. Therefore, legally speaking the judgment is clearly flawed.

However, this post is not about that.

This post is about how this judgment is extremely unmindful and ignorant of the scheme and provisions of users’ rights, and limitations to copyright which are present within the Copyright Act itself. This post is about reiterating the fact that Copyright is not a natural monopoly, but rather a carefully constrained legal monopoly, which is not unconditional or a ground to curb liberty of citizens whatsoever.

Judgments holding Copyright infringement (whether conclusively determined by a Court of law or not) as a cognizable and non-bailable offense under Section 63 of the Act, have led to quite an uncertainty for those who seek to use Copyrighted works for uses that are protected and are recognized as limitations to copyright and fundamental to speech purposes, deterring them from resorting to practicing permitted speech, and in effect resulting in a chilling effect on culture. After all, the police, while arresting (and curbing liberties) cannot be expected to figure out what is permitted under Section 52 of the Act and what is not, right? How does the police figure out as to whether borderline uses/dealings are limitations to infringement- or infringement? Given that Courts have even held that even commercial uses can be termed as fair use (Super Cassettes v. Hamar Television), there is no reasonable way for Police to prima facie determine as to whether the alleged offense is one that is statutorily protected or not, with its genesis in other fundamental constitutional obligations (reiterated in Wiley v. IIM).

I ask myself (as colloquially used in courts!), can the liberty of an individual, practicing legitimate speech be statutorily curbed in spite of their being a chance that the speech is protected under the same very statute? What if the unlicensed use of copyrighted content by Ola Cabs in the said case before the Karnataka HC could have come within the domains of Section 52 of the Act? Could the police determine the same? Would arresting an individual, in spite of the possibility of the use being within the contours of Section 52 to be determined by the Court, be in any case justiciable?

In effect, in a country like India, with an indigenous culture that is primarily derivative, and dependent on existing inputs to develop further cultural outputs, as a mode of learning as well as a mode of cultural practice (be it qua musical works, the guru-shishya parampara, or many such works where transformative-ness and derivative usage are the core of cultural performance- similar to sampling in hip-hop cultures), more so in cases of religious cultural outputs (which are also infact protectable, shockingly), people who resort to doing the same may be arrested with their liberties being given less of a preference as compared to overarching proprietary claims which often rest with corporate entities which did not put in any “skill and judgment” to deserve such statutory incentives.

Could this ever be the intent of the law?

It is extremely essential for Courts in India to realize the “EQUAL EXISTANCE” of Section 52 in the same very Copyright Act. Yes- the same Act, provides for certain dealings and uses with the works, to be exempt from being termed as infringing, or as the Supreme Court of India has heldnot reproductions that are infringing for the purposes of Section 51 of the Act. Unless and until, a Court of law/ judicial authority clearly comes to the conclusion, at least on a prima facie basis that the use/dealing which is infringing does not come within one of the limitations, arresting anybody or taking cognizance merely by a police officer (not a judicial authority) on the basis of an FIR, would be completely contrary to the purpose of the existence of Section 52 within the scheme of the Act. It is also important for Courts to realize that Copyright is a statutory monopoly conferred to someone who imputes their skill and judgment. As the Supreme Court has held, it is against the general course of our constitutional schema- which discourages monopolies. To regulate and “create a balance”, regulatory safeguards to this monopoly in the form of limitations have been prescribed under Section 52.

Merely because there is an economic loss to companies who now own these copyrights (due to assignments or employment contracts), possible infringements [without a clear legal determination of the same by a judicial court of law (at least a magistrate)] cannot, ever, be a ground to deny liberty and protection qua permitted speeches to people, especially when there is still a chance of penal consequences without there being a need to curb human liberties. Moreover, it is also important to realize that the companies which bank on copyright transfers as the genesis of their business models are in fact legally de-risked and are treated at a higher pedestal than any other business dealing in any other normal (or essential) commodity. This is merely because of their “investment” in products of skill and judgment, and not their creation of the same. Therefore, to have them cry out loud in the case of every ‘possible’ infringement, and to ask courts to arrest individuals committing acts, which may or may not be infringement (until determined by courts) can never be desirable policy.

Section 52 is an equal right/ freedom, and not something to be overlooked. In fact, it is the section that renders the Copyright Act constitutional, and in fact saves it from being vulnerable to unconstitutionality under the Indian Constitutional schema. Courts ought to be mindful of the same while dealing with cases of alleged infringement under the Copyright Act, 1957.

In the name of Balance!

I am tired of hearing the phrase “balance”. I am tired of those who say that limitations to Copyright ought to be interpreted in a way that balances it with the interests of Copyright holders. I am tired of those who argue for limitations to be read narrowly in the name of “balance”. I am tired of those who argue for wider and broader IP rights and contest limitations by claiming that they must be applied in a “balanced” way, that they must be applied in only “certain special cases”. I am tired!

What is Balance? Balance is keeping scales aligned and symmetrical. Balance is ensuring that every conscious act, which is a step away from normative thoughts, practices etc., is regulated to the extent that it does not take a form of a tyrannical unconscious act. Balance is meant to ensure that things are conscious of tradeoffs – and every move played, in the game of chess, for a purpose (whatever that might be), is smart and not one which is erratic and unreasoned. It is a way of ensuring that even erratic moves do not affect the most fundamental, by safeguarding and keeping them in the realm of generic normalcy.

Well, Copyright is, in and by itself, abnormal. It is not intuitive or natural. It can never be. It is deemed “commodification” for a purpose – i.e., to serve the end of ensuring that creators do not shift to marginal sources of revenue that will economically help them survive better. It is an imbalance, in the norm of competitive markets. It is encouraging monopoly, as against the norm of discouraging clusters or market power. It is by itself an imbalance.

I often get riled up when copyright owners (with enormous aggregated market power through tools of assignment/contracting out these rights of creators), say that hey- please do not restrict our monopoly in the name of limitations like use/fair use/permitted dealings etc. “We deserve free markets.” “We contribute to the GDP.” “We make the economy.” I often get riled up when they call for narrow readings of limitations- touting them as “exceptions”, saying that well a balance must be struck that does not defeat the owners right to market and exploitation.

Copyright is by itself an interference in “free markets”. It is a monopoly statutorily conferred, in the backdrop of a constitution which discourages monopolies. How can businesses, which by their genesis run on a model that is an interference in free markets- want complete regulatory stagnation? How can they want their rights/ businesses to be treated like other businesses in the free markets?

The idea of “limiting” the exemptions from Copyright/ limitations to Copyright, or applying them narrowly, is something which we need to get rid of. Asking for balance within an imbalance is an oxymoron. These limitations ARE THE BALANCE. Reading them widely, or as strongly (sadly) as we read these rights IS THE BALANCE.

Copyright owners asking for free markets/ no regulation (by arguing that any regulation like limitations or compulsory licenses goes against free trade or right to property) is the biggest oxymoron ever- as the genesis of their claims is by itself a regulatory interference in the free market.

To conclude in a single line-

Reading limitations to Copyright narrowly, in the name of “Balance” is the genesis of systemic imbalance. Reading them broadly, or at least at a similar threshold as those rights , is what constitutes “Balance”.


IP Mosaic, last year i.e., in 2020, was special. It was the first time I attended an IP Conference, because a friend was incidentally presenting. It was then that I got to hear from a few of the most amazing critical Intellectual Property Scholars- people like Prof. Brian L. Frye, Prof. Anjali Vats, Prof. Betsy Rosenblatt, Prof. Carys Craig, Prof. Bita Amani, among many others. The conference was very influential for me, in the sense, it imbibed this new way to look at IP scholarship. Since, I have even had the pleasure of working on some projects with Prof. Brian Frye and Prof. Anjali Vats.

Yesterday, at the 7th IP Mosaic Conference 2021, titled- IP as protest, change and empowerment, hosted by the Institute for Intellectual Property and Social Justice, Washington DC, along with MH School of Law in the US, I finally got to present my upcoming paper (almost in the final stages) titled- “Waiving Windfalls: A socio-legal and contextual justification of a TRIPS Waiver during the COVID-19 pandemic”, in the panel titled “Patents and public health”. The panel included Prof. Muhammed Zaheer Abbas (inspiring scholarship), Prof. Mason Marks and of course the moderator Prof. Sharon Sandeen (@TradeSecretProf).

Coming to my paper, it is NOW uploaded on SSRN, however as a gist, the trigger of the paper was the Second Wave and my experiences during the devastating and frustrating situation in India. People running to Courts for oxygen, hospital beds (anyone who was in Delhi then, would completely relate to what I am referring to), a tab of Remdesivir or Tocilizumab, got me thinking – how did we even get here!

The paper goes on to specifically look at the contextual political history in terms of IP regimes, the “gradualism” or the transition period afforded to developing nations – and how our global trade mechanisms are completely unmindful of accommodating these political historical realities, which were not within the control of most of the nations, now struggling to serve the health needs and priorities of their domestic population. I go on to bat for the essence of a waiver provision in the WTO Agreement, and use historical instances where waivers have been granted, as well as the political histories of the countries batting for a waiver, as against those opposing it, to justify the fact that IT’S NOW OR NEVER.

The main theme and focus of the paper is on colonial de-linking of pharmaceutical trade and IP laws.

“De-Colonizing IP requires an alternate accent – where global trade ought to be looked at from the eyes of geo-historical attentiveness. The essence of distributive justice, especially in the grim situation that we face today, lies in realizing the importance of the historical context, i.e., this context of prolonged inability, not due to controllable forces or complacency or a lack of merit, but rather due to global acts of suppression, accounted for in real history.”

Anyway, for more, here is the abstract and the (highly textual) slides which I used in the presentation.

Here is the full paper- up for comments and opinions.

Alternatively, the slides can also be accessed here:

Thanks a lot to IIPSJ and Prof. Sharon Sandeen for this opportunity. The paper will be out on SSRN very soon.

Inclusion as Efficiency: Incorporating “Substantive” Equality in Access to Culture and Copyright Policy

This piece takes its theme from the narrative that I have argued in a paper, which I am currently working on. The working paper was presented at WIPIP, 2021 and IPIRA 2021. Link to the slides: Here. The amazing Prof. Rebecca Tushnet had covered the presentation on her blog, which can be found here.

Culture plays a significant role in shaping us as political beings and is often referred to as the “source of the self.” Cultural expressions are essential agents of participating in social interactions and for a discursive society which facilitates democratic meaning making. In fact, Prof. Talha Syed, in one of his significant pieces has argued cultural participation and agency to not merely be a medium of self-determination, but rather an essential pre-condition for the same. The essential question is who gets to practice culture? Who gets to showcase, and frame meanings? How do hierarchies come into play in claims of forming the collective will and self-determination?

An essential pre-condition to cultural democracy and a vibrant claim to “free” self-determination, is agency and capability to participate. Participation is a source of voice, perspective and alternate practices. It ensures broad cultural exposure rather than homogeneity.  It directly and proportionally affects the element of “choice” in collective will formation. The flip side of the same is skewed narratives and narratives in the favour of those who have a structurally easier position to participate. Although for “choice” to actually be free, what is essential is not merely quantity of participants but rather meaningful diversity.

People tend to internalize the narratives they are exposed to. Diversity and representation, to that extent, allows for variety in perspectives to fairly and equally exist. Prof. Amartya Sen, in his book Identity and Violence, essentially harped upon the essence of diversity as an end in itself for actual freedom of reasoning and self-determination, due to the capability approach, where the focus is on a variety of eyes and perspectives rather than certain set of masquerades. Even Homi Bhabha, emphasizes upon exposure to “cultural difference” and alternate, often marginalized perspectives, as a means to eradicating “fixity” and stereotypes” in narratives and cultural meanings. Cultural difference, which basically conditions the idea of  diversity eliminates “fixity” in the construction of otherness, which are often, in fact constructed on the basis of social capabilities and unequal structures. 

As Astra Taylor, in her book The People’s Platform, crucially recognizes that the culture we consume, the stars we gaze, the pages we click, are not product of our inner desires, but infact are shaped by myriad factors of what’s available in circulation, marketing capability etc, it is important to amplify this idea as as it shows how culture and visibility thereto can contribute to  erasure of many, due to structural capabilities and the possession of economic resources, which are also often dictated by social positions- race, caste, class etc. Richa Nagar, in her provocative piece recognizes that “for each one who is afforded the means to step in and make knowledge/ cultural claims, there are many who are estranged and systemically erased” In fact, structurally governed capabilities to visibly express and produce cultural works, often result in cultural conformity, and ideals of “good” and “side” cultural practices. Consequent and effective cultural dispossession as a capitalist practice, imposes and coerces certain meanings, which are subservient to the interests of the structurally superior.

This is where the law steps in. Substantive equality can be a crucial tool to ensure “free” self-determination. For self-determination to be an essential consequentialist goal of cultural policy, we need to ensure diverse voices being in circulation. In fact, Indian Equality jurisprudence provides a valuable direction in realising this goal. In BK. Pavitra v. Union of India, Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud, importantly stated:

“Our benchmarks will define our outcomes. If this benchmark of efficiency  and merit is grounded in exclusion, it will produce a pattern of governance which is skewed against the marginalised. If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in equal access, our outcomes will reflect the commitment of the Constitution to produce a just social order. Otherwise, our past will haunt the inability of our society to move away from being deeply unequal to one which is founded on liberty and fraternity”

Justice Chandrachud in this judgment, deconstructs an important binary of merit and efficiency to allow for more holistic interpretation of these concepts, making them hospitable to the concept of inclusion, where what is valued is not mere consequential positions, but also the structural considerations that lead to such positions in the first. Transposition of the said idea in cultural policy directly contributes to a wider participative voice, from those who have been denied a platform to showcase such perspectives and a claim to knowledge for ages, due to their structural positions in the society. The norm of diversity can only be fostered by egalitarianism in the position of the speaker.

To that extent copyright policy, which directly contributes to production and exposure to culture, ought to learn and adapt from substantive equality jurisprudence, and ensure egalitarianism in the position of those who produce expressions. Copyright allows for the existence of “different” works, but there is a crucial distinction between “difference” and diversity”. Mere incentives to produce “different works” inside a bubble of homogeneity, yet provokes the idea of privilege being reinforced, where copyright’s effective consequentialist goal to drive cultural policy towards effective self-determination basically dwindles. It is essential to realize the aim of copyright policy to not merely allow for “more” works but rather more and “diverse” works from represented participants, with an egalitarian position of effective speech and visibility thereto, to align its utilitarian goals better towards cultural environmentalism, rather than cultural homogeneity and mere volumous prosperity. This could actually lead to “free choice” and intellectual enrichment, instead of a coerced sense of identity based on structural positions. Towards that end, it is essential to restrict copyright to the extent that it does not impede upon diverse forms of creativity, by restricting borrowing, and imposing “difference”, but rather empowers and recognizes them, inculcating within itself, the principle of communal creation- for substantive equality in cultural discourse. Romanticizing “difference” imposes constraints, which estranges diversity in expressions. It is time to shift the focus in copyright policy from “difference” to “diversity”/ “representation” and “perspectives” to make it more hospitable to egalitarianism and alternate forms of cultural production, which it currently undervalues, and in fact estranges.

“Discursive” Copyright?

Today morning, I was called to my Alma Mater, Jindal Global Law School, (of course virtually) to talk about Music Sampling and its relation to Copyright. Prof. Vishwas H. Deviah (who was my Independent Research Project advisor at Jindal, as also for whom, I served as a Teaching Assistant during my final year) had invited me to address a lecture to the LLM and Undergraduate students who have taken up the elective -“Music and Copyrights”.

Although the method of pedagogy in terms of this course is supposed to primarily be formalistic, and case-law oriented, tracing the judicial interpretations of sampling, I decided that given this opportunity, and having recently read The Color of Creatorship by Prof. Anjali Vats, I would try and do something different, and focus more on an interdisciplinary approach towards this lecture.

Here is the drive link with the slides that I used for the lecture/presentation:


Broadly, I have tried to provoke a critical voice, against the normative idea which is taught in copyright lectures, especially here in India. I have tried and focussed on viewing and tracing the imperialistic nature of Copyright, and its adverse impact on normative non-white practices like sampling- by doing a historical overview of copyright policy, as well as of Hip-Hop as a form of music. I tried, through, this lecture to make a case for Copyright’s racist origins hidden, and invisible in the face of the law, until one gets into technicalities.

I have tried to break bubbles around the acceptability of copyright’s idea of windfall incentives. Also to show how knowledge development has been a result of widespread appropriation, which is now widely condemned, by the same erstwhile appropriating communities. I also tried to break the shackles of the ideas of Romantic Authorship, by normalising conceptions of “creative borrowing” as a core and intrinsic practice within music and art.

This is not really something which is ever taught in our copyright courses. The idea of writing this post is that we must try and include conflicting narratives and dissents to status quo policies like copyrights, to realise the societies and communities- it adversely affects, and to focus upon their lenses, who have been at the receiving end of these colonial impositions, which they sometimes do not even realise they have been subjected to.

As copyright scholars, it is our role to emphasise on this perspective as well, rather than merely focussing on internalising copyright policy, and focussing on intrinsic reforms within it.

Reading List/ Sources I referred to (even copied from) for the purpose of these slides:

  1. The Color Of Creatorship, Anjali Vats (Stanford University Press)
  2. Copyrights and Copywrongs, Siva Vaidyanathan (NYU Press)
  3. Privilege and Property: Essays on the History of Copyright (Chapters- 3,4,6), by Mark Rose, Oren Bracha and Maurizio Borghi (Open Book Publishers)
  4. Locke’s 1694 Memorandum (And More incomplete Copyright histographies), Justin Hughes (Cardozo AELJ)
  5. Primary Sources on Copyright,
  6. Digital Sampling and Cultural Inequality, David Hesmonhalgh (The Open University UK)
  7. Sampling, Looping and Mashin…Oh My: Hip Hop music is scatching more than the surface of Copyright, Tonya M. Evans
  8. Copyright, Communication and Culture, Towards a Relational Theory of Copyright law, Carys Craig (Osgoode Digital Commons)
  9. Copyright, Culture & (and) Black Music: A legacy of Unequal Protection, K.J.Greene (Hastings CELJ)
  10. Copyright, Translations and relations between the British and India in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century, Lionel Bently (Chicago-Kent law review)
  11. Cultural Environmentalism and Beyond, James Boyle
  12. Intellectual Property and the intersection of Race and Gender, Lady Sings the Blues, K.J. Greene (Journal of Gender, Social Policy and Law)
  13. Critical Race Theory, Signifyin’, and Cultural Ownership, Richard L. Schur (in Parodies of Ownership
  14. On the Author Effect, Contemporary Copyright and Collective Creativity, Peter Jaszi
  15. Gandhi and Copyright Pragmatism, Shyamkrishna Balganesh
  16. Creativity and Culture in Copyright theory, Julie Cohen
  17. Digital Sampling: A Cultural Perspective, Henry Self
  18. From Mozart to Hip Hop: The Impact of Bridgeport v. Dimension Films on Musical Creativity, Lauren Brandes, (UCLA Entertainment Law Rev)
  19. Social Justice and Copyrights Excess, Betsy Rosenblatt (Texas AnM Journal of IP Law)
  20. Everyone is a superhero: The Cultural Theory of Mary Sue- Fan Fiction as Fair Use, Madhavi Sundar and Anupam Chander (California Law Review)
  21. Why Copyright law needs music lessons, Carys Craig (Osgoode Hall Law School)
  22. Fair Use and the Future of Art, Amy Alder (NYU School of Law)
  23. Hungry Translations: Relearning the world through Radical Vulnerability, Richa Nagar
  24. Free to be You and Me? Copyright and Constraint, Rebecca Tusnet, Harvard Law Review Forum
  25. Who Watches the Plagiarism Police, Brian Frye and Akshat Agrawal, (The Contemporary Law Forum)
  26. Is a Plot/Theme Copyrightable, Lets end the Controversy and Conflict, Part 2, Akshat Agrawal (IPRMENTLAW)

World IP Day : DARE You Celebrate!

Today is 26th April. The day, which is termed, every year as the “World IP day”, by the World Intellectual Property Organization. This is to celebrate and romanticise the concept of market exclusivities and the right to exclude. Exclusivities in culture, in knowledge, in information and consequently in pharmaceutical innovation.

This World IP day, I would like to pose a question – what has this romanticism led us to?

The deadly repercussions of internalising IP in terms of excludability/ the right to exclude- as the most viable form of incentives for innovative and creative production- are clearly visible to us today.  COVID-19 has led to many pieces being written all around the world arguing to invoke compulsory licenses, to ensure technology transfer, to prevent trade secrecy, to maintain voluntary social solidarity towards resolving the crisis which we are facing. We are even looking at a TRIPS waiver, for an equitable access to not just drugs and technology- which can help a multitude of organizations develop drugs- but also to access research and R&D, which are the basic fulcrum of knowledge development, and are blocked by exclusivity rights- facilitated by IP ownership.

It is interesting to note, however, that IP was infact, paradoxically, developed to “encourage” learning, “stimulate” creativity, for scientific “progress”, and to help cover costs of innovation. Sadly so, it is now used as a lever to earn windfalls out of publicly funded creations, and derivative knowledge.

What is the point of such “progress”, when inspite of the availability of the end result (vaccine), it is practically left inaccessible, and primarily so due to the idea of exclusivities? What is the point of a “means to an end”, when the “means” itself hampers the realization of the “end”, to the extent of its desirable social utility? Propertizing knowledge and culture is dangerous.

IP was envisioned as a limited entitlement, and sadly one revolving around exclusivities being conferred to one who has the privilege of being the first mover – often dictated by “capability” and structural positions in the society, as also, years of appropriation of capability (ironically so) (see here). IP apparently is something used to “protect” (see here) the “creator”/ “innovator” against appropriation, but to be honest –  IP infact amplifies the norm of historical appropriation, because this is what is the foundation of the capability involved in being the first mover.

We often think of IP as something which invokes the Blackstonian idea of “my creation = my sole and despotic dominion” (see here– pg. 1135-1136), and go on to equate it to tangible property (see here), conferring the right to exclude – that is the right to restrict access, unless the access-seeker budges into the terms which I impose for them to access “my” property/IP. But let’s think socially for once- what was the purpose of conferring this monopoly? Was it to empower the so called “creator” to an extent that they could demand access- seekers/dying patients- to put up sovereign assets, including military bases and federal bank reserves, as a collateral for access? Is this a fair tradeoff for innovative efficiency? If this is what IP permits and if this is the dialogue around power that it frames- I am sorry there is nothing, whatsoever, worth celebrating. It’s a dark day. IP and propertisation of knowledge – the greed it induces – the norm of excludability it fosters- is one of the reasons why there are more corpses to be cremated, than “ghee” which can be used to facilitate this cremation.

People say: But for IP protection, these companies would never have been incentivized to create the vaccines anyway. But for IP, artists would be dying. But for IP, we wouldn’t have any movies that we watch to relieve ourselves during these dark times. But for IP, my business and my brand can easily be appropriated and but for IP, anyone can steal anything that I do. “Thou shalt not steal” is what is the principled justification of the existence of IP and exclusive rights in essential resources today.

I have a few important and compelling questions/ observations for these people:

  • Who funded the research which was used by Bharat Biotech? (cough cough! ICMR- that’s my (taxpayers) money. Where is my vaccine? If not, BB show otherwise please? Where is the transparency?). See – here, here, here

  • IP specifically in health resources and knowledge resources is not like any other market-oriented exclusivity. Such exclusivities curb access to materials which are otherwise backed by Fundamental Constitutional Rights. There has to be limits to so-called “incentives” which IP provides, to the extent of ensuring effective access along with recoupment of costs. This statutorily conferred monopoly cannot be left to be realized on the whims and turns of the market- given its direct impact on access to fundamentally essential resources. Is there any proportionality/ transparency on this exclusivity? Has BB shown how much it spent on the development of the vaccine?  Is there any data which justifies the extent of compensation it deserves? Or wait, is it correct to leave it to its market power, especially when what that directly leads to is “people dying”? What justifies the “limited right”? or is IP just here to bestow windfalls (as it has done in the past- making pharma industries and academic publishing industries a few of the most profitable industries in the world (See here and here)), and unless one budges into their demands, you better die? The IP system is murderous. Data Exclusivity is murderous. (See here and here , here and here.)
  • Is IP concerned about the actual structural inequalities that are persistent in our societies, the actual images of the people who are barely able to afford a meal today? Is it mindful of distributive realities? What kind of drugs are being developed due to IP? Rare diseases – NO, Diseases of the developing world- NO, Infections and conditions which do not affect the rich- NO, Obscure diseases which affect Tribals, Adivasis, due to their lifestyles- NO (here), but wait- Hair Transplant treatments? – YES. See here and here.
  • “Compulsory licenses” – Let us think about the number of times they even been used? Once in India in the last 51 years. Heard about Special 301 US report (here)? Compulsory Licenses as well as Article 31bis of TRIPS are just a farce, and let’s face it, that’s the truth- the amount of economic pressure that comes with the invocation of Compulsory licenses, due to structural global positions, almost makes it impossible to invoke this provision, rendering it practically almost theoretical, even during situations of such a pandemic. Anyway, even invoking such provisions barely help, due to trade secrecy, regulatory burdens, threats of trade sanctions on alternate industries, diplomatic pressures and gaps in know-how. See here, here, here and here.
  • Research Exceptions in Copyright law are theoretical provisions, because they need one to honor paywalls in the beginning itself- for purposes of access. If I don’t honor the paywall, and circumvent it, to access for researching and further building on knowledge- well the anti-circumvention police are after me. What is the purpose of the research exception? Nothing. It is practically useless, unless I pay Elsevier for access to the paywall protected article. See here. Is that conscientious to the knowledge and research development in the developing world?  Or is IP basically a tool to widen the knowledge gap, and the capacity to access and use essential research thereto?
  • How will the book author earn? How would they make money? – Well copyrights are never with book authors firstly, due to transferability. So, the whole idea of “fruits of one’s labour” is another farce to cover up for interests of industries which want to capitalize on knowledge and earn without any limits, through a monopoly on these creations- facilitated by IP. They don’t care about humanity. Just profits. As William Patry once rightly said, Copyrights as authors rights is a fascinating story carved out by industrialists to put authors in the forefront, and ultimately use the narrative, through the almost hidden tool of transferability  (it’s like those convincing ponzi schemes, with faint and minute disclaimers: “terms and conditions apply”). Copyrights as effective tools of remuneration and incentive for “authors” is the biggest canard in our history and we must realize it ASAP. (see here and here)
  • A comparison of the revenues earned by publishing houses (and even for academic publishing), is grossly disproportionate to what goes back to authors of these works. (An insightful report by Authors Alliance) The Academic Publishing industry earns a fortune, from all corners (See more here, here, and here), by exploiting these copyrights, which were intended to ensure reasonable revenue and control in favor of authors. For these publishers, it is their monopoly on visibility in the market that renders this possible. In fact, if one does not fulfill the requirements of what the publishers want to publish (including the narrative of information), it may not even get published. Authors are often at the mercy of publishers, who in fact exploit the rights of these authors, to earn the maximum amount of money for themselves. If Copyright is actually supposed to help authors recoup income through these rights, where is the income? Why are authors having a hard time making it, monetarily? (See here) Are such exclusivities desirable, at the cost of access to educational/ research papers/ knowledge resources/ resources which facilitate development of vaccines and healthcare? Is the tradeoff worth it?
  • Why would people make music? How do artists get remunerated if not for IP? Well, apart from the 1% superstars who conform to the homogenous mainstream music market, does any artist even make money out of copyrights?  Realistically, few authors have made money through copyrights. Various studies and anecdotes have helped substantiate this over time. (See here, here (page 16), here, here, here). In fact, vaguely 10% of the revenue through copyrights, has been argued to be disseminated amongst 90% of the creators, with the rest in the hands of certain “superstars” (who make mainstream content) as well as these industries themselves, which are  gold mines.  Prof. Shamnad in a hard-hitting piece, which dates back to 2010, had emphasized upon this rhetoric, highlighting the plight of creators. What is the point of a system focusing on exclusivities which are transferable, as against direct remunerations to authors? (see here for a detailed post arguing disintermediation)
  • The idea of Copyright as incentives to create cultural works is indeed questionable. As Zimmerman recognises here:

“A raft of recent studies makes it quite clear that modern creators generally have little more realistic hope than Victorian poets of earning much in the way of remuneration for their acts of creation. The copyright “incentive” notwithstanding, it is more credible to understand their devotion to the production of expressive works more as a product of love than as a response to the promise of money, because they are unlikely ever to see much of the latter. A British survey, for example, found that few of that country’s writers could support themselves by their craft, with the result that most must regularly turn to other part- or full-time jobs to supply themselves with the income necessary to survive.  This finding is consistent with those from similar studies in the United States and Canada”

There are many who have actually questioned the relevance of “exclusivities” as the reason for inducing cultural production, as well as an effective remunerative tool, even from a fruits of one’s labour approach. (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here). In fact, there are research outputs that show that copyright constraints creative autonomy, and fosters industrial conformity towards the marketable mainstream. (here, here, here and here). IP is a tool of coercion of agency and concentration into cultural homogeneity, as against democratic and representative discourse. It embraces difference within a homogenous bubble- not representative diversity. What justifies exclusivities then? Windfall incentives to invest? What about alternate- non access curbing- incentives?

  • What kind of creativity does copyright incentivize, if at all? Industrial mainstream creativity which is capable of generating the most amount of money for those who control distributive visibility. Basically, content which satisfies the aesthetic and cultural conceptions of those who are wealthy and can pay the most, and can make these copyright owners (transferees, by virtue of distributive edge) richer. It contributes to erasure of dialogues which do not belong/ or satisfy the aesthetic judgments of economically superior (often due to structural reasons) audiences who can generate maximum profits for creative industries. It results in erasure of non- urban, non-upper class, non- elite, non- upper caste, and non-racially skewed dialogues, which would make these upper classes uncomfortable. It fosters speech hierarchy which furthers the divide around privilege of capability. It levels creators belonging to communities which depend on borrowing as a normative practice as “lazy thieves” and labels them as imitators who lack the capacity of groundbreaking art, due to the derivative nature of their creative expressions, inspite of that being the norm. (look out for my upcoming paper titled Access to Culture Dialogues, dealing with this. Had presented it at WIPIP’ 21. Here are the slides).
    • IP is a shorthand for creating a white male knowledge citizenry that is completely ignorant of the knowledge and historical divide of capabilities, and appropriation thereto, as also the normative practice of borrowing and sharing involved in various cultural societies, where these norms are coerced. IP is racist. (see Anjali Vats- the color of creatorship for the last 2 bullets). It also privileges those with a capability of a first mover advantage due to structural considerations. It favors with those with better “natural” engines and provides them exclusive monopoly rights over exercise and use of that particular resource, estranging many. It does not favour the first creator (in copyrights, there is no way to ascertain whether the person claiming monopoly is actually the “first creator”), but rather the first “showcaser”, one with the ability and visibility.  See also here, here, here and here. It favors and provides exclusivities to certain kinds of cultural practices that are individualistic, textual (as against aural), and non-derivative (supposedly, as a myth), ostracizing those who practice alternate cultures, economically.

    The idea of the IP system as an entitlement, even for purposes of autonomy, “just” desserts, labour as also incentives, is a flawed belief– lest it should not have been transferable, it should have accounted for bargaining power, it should have been perpetual (which it isn’t and thank god for it – the statute of Anne was only a 10 year right (See here, but also here). IP was supposed to be a tool, to ensure that firms which invest in innovation and authors who create, are not “disincentivized” and forced to shift to marginal sources of revenue due to capitalistic forces in play. However, now, do we even need such incentives, or rather do we need such incentives which provide the power of excludability? A serious response to the same must be considerate of the magnitude of profits currently being earned by Pharma and publishing industries, and the extent to which alternative systems, which do not depend on access control, and exclusivities would corrode these profits. (For profitability in the Pharma Industry see here, here, here, here, here and here) It requires transparency in financial data, and requires conducive thought to the idea of health, education and culture, which are in effect commodified upon a model of excludability, being involved and them being fundamental to human existence. Are Patents and similar exclusivities the only drivers of innovation? See here

    Before I am bombarded with opinions which blast me saying – “What is the alternative you suggest?” – I am no one to suggest alternatives. But there are people who have been studying this field and constantly foreseeing the problems with the IP system i.e., excludable monopoly over knowledge, culture and health resources, and have suggested some feasible alternatives. But, as I guess, they will never see the light of the day, because well of course they go against the idea of “staggering profits” and windfalls, which these industries have gotten accustomed to, even if that so at the cost of human lives. If you still however, wish to see the alternatives to the IP system- which do not involve the “Right to exclude”– see  here, here, here, here, here. here, here, here, here and here.

    I believe, it is time to look beyond internalizing exclusivities and excludable. It is time to look beyond the term “Property”. It is time to believe in alternatives- one’s that aren’t governed by whims and fancies, but rather are accountable towards their larger social goals they seek to promote. If this pandemic has taught us one thing-  it is that we are all connected human beings- socially affected by and to some dependent on each other. We need to respect that and look beyond individualistic benefits and incentives.

    Let’s look beyond sole concerns of economy and industrialization, which employ means that restrict fundamental human growth. As Amartya Sen says:

    “Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product, or with the rise in personal incomes, or with industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization. Growth of GNP or of individual incomes can, of course, be very important as means to expanding the freedoms enjoyed by the members of the society. But freedoms depend also on other determinants, such as social and economic arrangements (for example, facilities for education and health care) as well as political and civil rights (for example, the liberty to participate in public discussion and scrutiny).

    With people dying, corpses repeatedly filling burial grounds, innovative capability being stifled due to exclusivities inspite of the availability of 5 developed vaccines owned (through patents and trade secrets and data exclusivities) by already billionaire industries, I must say, the IP system* is definitely partly to blame for the continuation of deaths.

    Therefore, to conclude – Dare you celebrate today. If you choose to do so, you better know that the IP (excludability) system is complicit, and so are you!!

    *focusing on industrial policy and excludabilities and justified by non- inclusive economic considerations which further the rich getting richer aphorism.

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