Meet Ashok Kumar the John Doe of India; or The Pirate Autobiography of an Unknown Indian

The internet has been abuzz with  news of all the major ISPs in India blocking popular websites including piratebay, vimeo, dailymotion and pastebin etc. This is pursuant to a Chennai high court order available here and there are a number of unanswered questions about the validity of the blocking of the websites including whether the DOT were entitled to ask for a blocking of the site on the basis of the orders, how the ISPs chose these particular websites since the order itself does not mention any particular website. This is not to mention the larger question of how the last ten years has seen the dubious rise of John Doe orders as preemptive measure against copyright infringement.

For those unfamiliar with John Doe orders, they are ex parte injunctions ordered against unknown persons. Just to put this in context, ex parte injunctions are not the easiest things to obtain since they are based on the denial of  another person’s right to be heard. So even for cases of violence against women getting an ex parte restraining order is not easy. In contrast the last ten years we have seen the ease with which one can obtain these orders for copyright infringement cases.

A number of legal innovations in the realm of injunctions have been developed to tackle the problem of anonymity in this domain. The three specific tools that have been used include

  • Ex-parte injunctions (injunctions that are granted even without hearing the other party)
  • John Doe Orders  (Issued against anonymous offenders; E.g Mirabhai Films got a John Doe Order against all cable operators before the release of Monsoon Wedding)
  • Anton Piller Orders ( Search and seizure orders) including breaking down doors of shops which are closed

For an analysis of the dangers of  John Doe orders by Nikhil Pahwa in medianama see this

But for the moment I want to focus on the fascinating order itself and its incarnation of an unknown Indian person Ashok Kumar as well as the spectral fear of the copy.

The order names twenty respondents. Of these the first fifteen include all the major ISPs (BSNL, MTNL, Airtel, Tata, Reliance etc) and respodents No. 16 to 20 are Ashok Kumar, unknown person.

I am not sure why there are four Ashok Kumars when one would have done the trick? Is it a bug in the matrix and Nos. 17to 20 are merely the pirated versions of respondent no. 16?  Could it be a viral infection from within the film and its well known song which also has a habit of repeating itself (why this Kolaveri Kolaveri Kolaveri Kolaveri di? )

The order basically says that Ms. Fifteen Majors ISPs and Mr Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Ashok Kumar should not infringe the copyright of the film “3”.

It is ordered that

the respondents/ defendants herein, and other unknown persons by themselves, their partners/ proprietor, heirs, representatives, successors in business, assigns, distributors, agents or anyone claiming through them be and are hereby restrained by order of interim injunction until further orders of this court from, in any manner infringing the applicants copyright in the cinematographic films/ motion picture “3” by copying, recording, reproducing or allowing camcording or communication or allowing others to communicate to making available or distributing or duplicating or releasing or showing or uploading or downloading or exhibiting or playing in or in any manner communication in any manner without a proper license form the applicant or in any manner that would violate/ infringe the applicants copyright in the said cinematograph film “3” through different mediums including CD, DVD, Blu-Ray disc, VCD, Cable TV, Direct to home services, internet services, multimedia messaging services, pen drives, hard drives, tapes, conditional access systems or in any other like manner whatsoever  

So in addition to the unknown Ashok Kumar, we have the addition of other unknown persons (Kishore, Rajesh, Anup evam Indrajit?), their heirs, agents, representatives etc. of these unknown persons. This is followed by a list of prohibited acts (copying, uploading, downloading) through a set of prohibited objects (hard drives, pen drives, DVDs etc.)

This straight forward assault on the everyday passion that people invest in cinema and music is intriguing if not all that surprising in the history of copyright infringement. Companies have regularly benefited from the passionate investment of viewers, spectators and users in their goods before taking out their copyright sledge hammer to control the indisciplined passions of the same users and viewers. Consider for instance the fact that Microsoft did not enforce their copyright over illegal copies of their Operating system or products  such as Microsoft office for years (despite being one of the ‘best’ software companies in the world). They only started enforcing their copyright when there was enough of a mass marker that had been created and a lock in secured for their goods. Learning a software includes a huge investment of time and effort on the part of users and unlike toothpaste cannot be changed over night.

In the same way Kolaveri  became what it is because of Ms. Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Ashok Kumar and Ashok Kumar copying, communicating, uploading, downloading, modifying and distributing over the internet, through CDs, hard drives and pen drives the song and all its hundred variations. This wasn’t just a catchy song going viral but an attitude going global. Fan clubs in south Indian have been marked by the excess investment that they make in stars and in films, an excess that moves between the monetary economy of box office hits and profits on the one hand and the libidinal economy of love, passion and enthusiasm on the other.

For owners of copyright, an ideal world would be one where you could control one through the control of the other. So one benefits from all the passion of fans and enthusiasts even as one hopes that this will convert into mass hysteria at the box office. But there is that little thing about having one’s cake and eating it too. For an interesting account of how Kolaveri went viral see this

The copy which promised abundance but then threatens to eat into the film makers profits seems to parallel the larger movement of the word copy whose etymological roots in copia “plenty” moves in English from an original sense of “abundance” to the more recent sense of derivativeness. It passes thereby from a sense of plenty to a sense of scarcity (For detailed history see  New Keywords).

Apart from  the questionable logic of the film makers turning fans and enthusiasts against their own film what we  probably need to do for the future is to think of how  the investment of ‘excessive energy’ allows us to make claims of ownership and limit the hackneyed argument of a film being the private property of the film maker. This is a domain which necessarily takes us away from the usual focus either on the language of rights or even the language of openness and what we need is a  Political language of Passion and Enthusiasm which can supplement the existing languages of denial and access. The excessive response of the film makers in securing this order and in the blocking of the websites is plainly disrespectful of the excess that they thrived on just a few months ago.

The absolute ignorance and arrogance of the film makers in trying to secure a ban on these websites shows their blindness to the way that the internet works. Imagine a Facebook without faces, a youtube without uploaders, and twitter without tweeters. It is said that Kafka came across a reference to a cinema for the blind in Prague, and he was intrigued by it and came to believe that all cinemas should be called The Cinema of the Blind, because their flickering images blind people to reality. What we have with the Ashok Kumar order is perhaps  the inauguration of the cinema of the blind film maker because their flickering profits blind them to reality.

8 thoughts on “Meet Ashok Kumar the John Doe of India; or The Pirate Autobiography of an Unknown Indian”

  1. You should watch steal this film. From the site “Because waves of repression continue to come: lawsuits are still levied against innocent people; arrests are still made on flimsy pretexts, in order to terrify and confuse; harsh laws are still enacted against filesharing, taking their place in the gradual erosion of our privacy and the bolstering of the surveillance state. All of this is intended to destroy or delay inexorable changes in what it means to create and exchange our creations. If STEAL THIS FILM II proves at all useful in bringing new people into the leagues of those now prepared to think ‘after intellectual property’, think creatively about the future of distribution, production and creativity, we have achieved our main goal.”


  2. Brilliant post, Lawrence. Captures the contemporary bind of ‘entertainment capital’ beautifully. Not really the falling rate of profit or some such thing that threatens it but its own cheap copy! Contraband capital, could we call it? What is interesting is that its success is precisely the source of its biggest anxiety! Could you please follow this up with some more….


  3. Why don’t we call the whole episode “Ashok Kumar in Wonderland” ?? Since Ashok Kumar/John Doe is more like an abstract class, instances of which may now and then manifest or be manufactured, the platform itself is …well another world,but without national boundaries, matter or even space ! Doesn’t that sound like Wonderland ?


  4. We should thank them for not mentioning use of eyes to watch and ears to hear as an act of infringement of copyright :). In any case how many of these kollywood/bolloywood/tollywood films are worth downloading and watching.


  5. Indeed the film makers seem to be wanting to keep the cake and have it too. In some other cases too it has been observed that the players in the film industry on one hand are employing agencies to upload videos on video sharing websites and then later get back at them for copyright infringement. ( viacom v. youtube)

    The John Doe order need not always get the viewers to pay and watch the movie, for most of the times, one ends up watching the movie just because it is available. Rather it might be limiting the number of those who might want to watch it on the big screen.


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