The new normal

Internet activist Aaron Swartz’s tragic death has triggered a debate on copyrights. Swartz was caught downloading millions of academic papers from JSTOR, an academic publisher. His intention was to broaden access, not to make money by stashing them up.

Restricting access to research papers only to paying subscribers, the way the academic publishing industry does, is a sensitive issue. Seeing the PR disaster in the making JSTOR refused to press charges. But the US federal government prosecuted him ferociously. Harvard University, where he was a teaching, refused any support and Swartz ended his life

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) have become a frequent flashpoint. The present approach to protecting them – locking them up for unlimited private gain for extended durations – originates in the pre-digital era, when the distribution of such material could be tightly controlled. That is a bit dated in a world where everything gets digitised and distributed freely.
 
Proponents of IPR need to become more realistic on the returns they expect for the inventors and balance them better with public interest and the new distribution realities. Pharmaceutical companies do a crucial job in investing on cures for new diseases. But when their intellectual right becomes a license to charge high prices for long durations and exclude large segments of the needy from the benefits of science, regulators need to step in. This is what the Supreme Court is trying to get the government to do in India.

Movies are affected by piracy. But the good ones among them make Rs 100 crores in a few days, which is a fair return. The new distribution medium, the internet, will not allow them to lock up the cash cow and keep milking it for all times to come.  Music labels used to make huge profits with the hold they had over the artists and customers. There was a time it was hard to buy singles; you had to buy the entire album to listen to what you wanted. Piracy wiped out the profits of labels, which was an inefficient middleman in the industry. There is no record of any artist going broke from piracy. Many of them did make less money than before. The medium also opened up new opportunities for them. Many of them prospered better.

This is the new normal. You cannot put the genie back. The US recording industry association RIAA has been fighting online piracy for decades now. It has shut down many web sites, sued countless individuals. But the menace has never really gone away. No right can be absolute.  The fundamental rights in all democracies are open to reasonable restrictions. Why should there be an exception to copyright?


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(Contributed by V.K.Venugopal)

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