May 2003

ET Cetera: Who’s afraid of the old fox?

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My good chumBandwidth Banditlives in Jayanagar,Bangalore. Over thelast two years he hasused his broadbandconnection to amass4 Gb of music inMP3 format fromthe '60s and '70s. Hesays that he will name his first child Napsterout of gratitude for the infamous file swappingsoftware. Sometimes, the BandwidthBandit hosts his uncle from Tuticorin affectionatelyreferred to as the Old Fox.

I had the privilege and pleasure of meetingthe Old Fox the other day. He is 80 yearsold and is an incurable Carnatic music afficionado.Since his youth he has been a classicalmusic teacher of great repute. Onhearing of my fetish for information technology,he began revealing details of hismodus operandi. He has a digital radio receiverhooked up to a Pentium II with 256Mb RAM. The software on his computerhas been configured by a teenage accompliceto encode and compress the music to MP3format. He then cuts over twenty CDs a day,each containing over 120 songs or ten wholealbums. All strictly Carnatic with the occasionaldigression into Hindustani and Fusion.These CDs are distributed for free orat cost to family, friends, colleagues and hismany disciples across the years. Let us estimatethe value of music that the Old Foxpirates per year. 20 CDs per day x 10 albumsper CD x 300 working days per annumx Rs 150 per album equals Rs.90,00,000 per year. Single handedly the OldFox has caused over one Crore of copyrightdamage. Comparatively the Bandwidth Banditis small fish. Scary! I wonder how many80 year old men the Indian music industrywill have to hunt down, arrest, prosecute andjail to stop illegal sharing of music. Music isone of life's greatest joys, only surpassed bythe joy sharing it. The trouble is, an intellectualproperty regime makes criminals out ofnormal citizens like you and me for activitiesthat we have long taken for granted.

Ideally an intellectual property regimeshould protect the interests of all four partiesinvolved. The innovator, the entrepreneur,the consumer and society at large.Unfortunately consortia of large corporationshave infiltrated the government and the legislature.Their powerful lobbyists haveskewed copyright laws to suit their appetitefor unlimited profits. This is not an Indiaspecific phenomena. It is the result of a sustainedglobal corporate campaign. Consequentlythe rights of ordinary consumers andthe average citizen have eroded away, leavingthem with the terrible choice betweenan empty wallet or a life of so-called crime.

Digital music is just a form of software.Computer software is another domain wherethe consequences of Intellectual PropertyRights are horrifying. By conservative estimateswe have 1 million computers in India.If we were to install a legal version of thedefault operating system and office suite oneach of these machines. India would have topay a single American company approxi-mately $400 million every two years. Thisexcludes client software for desktop publishing,web design, 3D modeling, drafting, animation,audio and video production,integrated development environments, accountingand finance, enterprise managementand planning. To this, add the cost ofmail, web, file, print, chat, database, applicationserver software which are usually moreexpensive that client software. Thereforeputting legal software on a million odd Indiancomputers will result in the total valueof software imports far exceeding softwareexports. Or put more bluntly, India's softwarebusiness is profitable only because itpirates software. The net effect of the globalintellectual property regime is that it impoverishesdeveloping countries like India. Clearevidence is available on the United StatesPatent Office website. In the report titled'Patent Counts by country/State and YearAll Patents and All Type' for the period1977 to 2001, the number of patentsgranted to United States is 14,35,712.Number of patents granted in the same periodto India is 992. So how many years willwe need to catch up? Carnatic music, television,medicine, software, books, seeds, products,processes, ideas, gestures. Intellectualproperty pervades every aspect of our lives.

Practitioners working in the domain ofICT for Development must understand thekey role that IPR plays in defining and perpetuatingthe Digital Divide, just as privateproperty defines the Economic Divide betweenlandowners and landless. However, theglobal intellectual property rights regime thatexists today cannot be wished away. Nor canwe afford as a nation not to participate. Butalternatives do exist such as the General PublicLicense [www.gnu.org]. We must as anation learn from the manner and methodof the global free software movement. Extremecorporate privatization of intellectualproperty must be countered by protectingand building the public domain. The Indianvoluntary sector must recognize this as aspart of its mandate. Otherwise we will endup making criminals of well intentioned citizenssuch as the Old Fox. I then asked OldFox if he would ever tire of this. He smiledsheepishly and said 'I really like this illegalstuff, I say'. He then shut his eyes and sunkback into a lesser known MS Subbalakshmi.

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