Bootlegging Education – Four Strategies for Fighting Back

Yes, this is what we must do now on a large scale – bootleg education.

Thanks to the conjunction of new heights of intellectual bankruptcy with new regimes of intellectual property, a large scale attack on equitable access to education is upon us. A longer discussion on  ‘Intellectual property’ is required, but the immediate provocation for this post is of course the Delhi University photocopying case. Elsewhere on Kafila, there is a post that links to a petition by authors and academics on this issue. The case, very simply is this: three big corporate publishers, namely Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis have filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, claiming infringement of copyright with regard to course packs used by students. The offender against these giant publishers is a small photocopy shop in Delhi School of Economics. As many legal experts on intellectual property and the Indian copyright law have stated, this kind of photocopying is well within the framework of the law (See some of the discussion here and here).

At the moment, however, I am not concerned with the pure legality of the issue. The question of ‘course packs’ concerns the vital interests of our society as a whole. For there was a time when teaching at the college and university level was  conducted largely through substandard kunjis, or guidebooks – honourable exceptions apart, of course.  Even today we have at least one of the corporate giants (that happens to be among those suing the little Rameshwari photocopier), producing slightly upmarket versions of such guidebooks. University professors willing to write a substandard book a month that fits into some course or the other, are also published by  publishers like these now, euphemistically called ‘textbooks’. In an earlier time, such books of barely passable scholarship (largely plagiarized cut-and-paste jobs) would be published only by dubious publishers.

Course packs with  essays and book chapters from original writings came as a much needed change. Students were now able to read the great masters of the disciplines or keep abreast of new developments in the field, by reading originals, even when the books themselves were not available even in metropolitan India – not to speak of smaller towns. Photocopied materials included in course packs transformed the level and mode of teaching completely. Instead of ready-made lectures, prepared decades ago and regurgitated in classrooms, we now had students being made to read stuff that they would then have to discuss. It is a long story of a change that was still underway, that has now been thwarted. Once more the spectre of idiocy reigning in class rooms stares us in the face.

Corporate publishers are of course in the business for their profit and not for ensuring that our students get the right kind of education. But what do we say of a government and a university that falls prostrate before this corporate logic? This is where the question of intellectual bankruptcy comes in. Starting with our venerable education (HRD) minister right down to university vice-chancellors (with some honourable exceptions again) and university bureaucrats, we now have a breed of people who are hell bent upon destroying education. Especially higher education. It is farcical the way they seem to believe that simply by ramming the semester system down the throats of teachers and introducing four-year degree courses, they will improve the quality of education. As anyone who has been actually teaching rather than merely Siballing (i.e.vacuous gassing and talking down without content) will tell you, already, in the first year of the semester system, the dumbing down is becoming evident. Teachers too are being consumed by the endless conducting of examinations and script evaluation, with teaching itself being squashed into a small part of the semester, leaving them with no time for the creative and pleasurable work that teaching always was.

However, that is a longer story. Some day, very soon, we shall return to this aspect of the systematic destruction of higher education. For the present, let me turn to the issue at hand. Now that a government-without-vision and a pliable university administration have decided to prostrate themselves before this corporate logic, what can we do? While we certainly need to fight the legal battle, there are some more concrete steps that we (those interested in seeing that higher education is not completely destroyed) might need to consider taking.

In the first place, we need to become bootleggers, rather than be content with remaining paid employees of a mindless governmental bureaucracy. We need to pool all our resources, all our books – bought and downloaded – to make them available to our students. This requires some work. Through this post, let me make this appeal to all our academics to put their heads together to find ways of doing what Rameshwari photocopier was only doing on a small scale. We as authors need to do more.

Here are four possible strategies:

1. A campaign to get the maximum number of academics to boycott these three big publishers at every level, unless they are prepared to withdraw their case.

2. All authors need to read their publication contracts – especially the fine print – very carefully.  Authors  must insist on retaining the copyright of their work and its execution rights in their hands.

3. A proposal some of us have been discussing: Can something like a consortium of small publishers (say like the one that already exists and runs U-special, the DU bookshop) agree to put their heads together with some of our legal minds working in copyright, to evolve a commercially viable creative commons/ copyleft regime? On that basis, we can approach prospective authors to publish with these  publishers.

4. In case (3) is something that can be agreed upon, some of us can do voluntarily what acquisition editors do for big publishers – that is, convince our peers that this can be a viable publishing option.

The battle against corporate capital is not in some indefinite future. The time is now.

9 thoughts on “Bootlegging Education – Four Strategies for Fighting Back”

  1. Thanks for this great post. As is probably obvious by now, my experience as primarily a student but also as a limited-time-only publishing house employee has made this issue very close to me. All the four strategies that you provide are great and seem to be the need of the hour, though the first-and probably the most difficult-is the one that’s going to have an immediate impact in this case.
    As for an alternative, as and when a ‘cooperative’ copyleft publishing house comes up, I volunteer to edit a couple of books a year for the house for ‘free’. Free in quotes because it would mean the world. And then some.


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  3. I believe teachers almost have a duty to make resources/readings/links available online, s’where. But this shouldnt exonerate students from going to recommended reading. One does have a good idea of the competition that went into borrowing and ‘preparation’ from the ’80s (its all there, s’where, copy reams of stuff…) and you have it…
    Some univs actually have like core readings that rely on particular chapters and papers. Core readings must be made accessible online for registered students, maybe with prior permissions, through summaries etc.

    This is hardly to legitimate the legalities that X,Y or Z publishers seek recourse to, for ‘losses’ from copying.


  4. Give link to available resources online. Many academics in USA, Canada, Europe use of the clause in the copyright contracts that permit them to post articles for non-commercial use.Academics in India can check whether their contracts have such provisions and if so make use of them . Big universities like Delhi University, JNU should think in terms of making maximum use of open access resources in teaching and encourage faculty to do so.They can make it mandatory that all faculty should deposit a copy of the articles, papers in the respective archive of the university which can be accessed by all students and faculty with id and password.


  5. some hopefully not very garbled notes:

    * In this scenario (development under neoliberalism), engineers and technocrats thus become the local ‘development cowboys’, mustering financial backing and corporate support with ease. Politico-bureaucratic rationality is faithful to the telos of development, upholding a world view that appreciates production of value out of elements that are either ‘free (unvalued), or which develop value out of a lower value’. Science and technology are similarly manipulated by this end_ ordering a hierarchy of ‘knowledges’ valued in terms of their potential for surplus extraction. Under capitalism, this scientific valuation continuously (historically) becomes distilled, such that only those knowledge structures survive that have the edge and potential for maximal surplus extraction. ‘Breakthrough’ sciences (such as microbiology, nanoscience) also become evaluated in such terms. Not only does this epistemic ‘survival of the fittest’ eliminate on the predication of gain, but importantly they have an evolutionary role in their own reproduction. Science then develops in terms of potential for ‘fruitful’ application. Thus capitalism can be seen not only as structure, but as having motive forms of production and its reproduction. Neoliberalism, as the ‘burnout’ phase of capitalism seeks to renew itself with the forces of ‘economic stabilization’, by appearing to incorporate meliorist-humanist ideologies (translated by social-work interventions and ‘not-for-profit’ managements).

    This form of ‘instrumental rationality’ “conditions the normality of life and even ‘culture'”, being thus animated by a restlessness that must seek endless accumulation. In this process, it becomes vital to establish supremacy of ‘the capitalist civilizational project’, which requires the elimination of alternatives_ the elimination of cultures of altruism’ (Anouar Abdel Malik), those tempering accumulation with oppositional (alternative) social and religious practices (going against the grain of the capitalist civilizational project, and finding themselves consigned to ‘the wrong side of history’). Thus, capitalism must assume epistemic dimensions in its quest for innovation, thereby fetishising ‘intellectual property’ and rewarding it.


  6. From what I hear, Delhi University has been restrained from large-scale copying of textbooks, preparing course-packs etc by an HC injunction. I thought the course-packs weakened the case for DU, but evidently not as much as DU’s written statement did.

    Starting with a “What – me photocopy?!” DU’s statement rapidly rises to greater depths with successive arguments:

    • Who says you own the rights to these books?
    • We are barely on talking terms with Rameshwari – they only live with us.
    • This is just a silly little thing (de minimus).
    • We are the State! We have a constitutional right to xerox.
    • We are sorry! We will never, never, ever do this again.

    (I was particularly charmed by a parenthetically wistful aside, where DU says the facility of photocopying – hitherto offered by Defendant 1, whatshisname – was something “each individual student could have done had such photocopiers been installed within the premises of the library”. You reckon?)

    Beyond the obvious step of taking a licence from IRRO (which, at Rs.24,000 a year per University, is not unaffordable), Aditya’s proposed strategies are the right way to go. We really need to evolve “a commercially viable creative commons/ copyleft regime” for textbooks. Possibly for all books. There is no reason why dead-tree editions can’t be sold as products but their content given away for free. With the Siballine dream of a tablet in every backpack, there should be no photocopying charges either.


  7. AND, we can get academics, professionals, activists etc together to actually write textbooks collaboratively, which are fully open-access. We’re on our way to doing so at AUD for an Ecology-Society book. Others should join.


    initiatives have already started. most of the classics have an expired copyright and e book versions are available for free. most of the authors can come together and start similar platforms.Sites like coursera and udemy are giving similar content in video for free. these can be aggregated as text for lectures. at the end its the faculty that decides the books to refer to. they can start with first level of boycott.


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