NEW DELHI - A cramped, one-room shop tucked away in Delhi University seems an unlikely battleground for a publishing war that, academics warn, threatens quality of and access to education in the world's second most populous nation.
The busy shop, where photocopiers churn out papers for a steady stream of students for a small fee, is at the centre of a court battle brought by three venerable academic presses over the interpretation of India's copyright law.
The lawsuit, filed by Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Taylor & Francis against Delhi University and the shop threatens production of "course packs" - de facto "textbooks" made of photocopied portions of various books.
Course packs are common throughout much of the developing world - where most university students cannot afford to purchase new or even second-hand textbooks - and are seen as key to the spread of education there.
Distinguished Indian academics have lined up to express dismay over the suit, including Nobel Prize winner and Harvard University professor Amartya Sen, warning that these packs could become expensive, or unavailable altogether, hitting students hard.
"As an OUP (Oxford University Press) author I would like to urge my publisher to not draw on the full force of the law to make these course packs impossible to generate and use,"
Sen wrote in an open letter last September, a month after the case was filed in the Supreme Court.
"Educational publishers have to balance various interests, and the cause (access to) of education must surely be a very important one," he wrote.
Experts fear that the case could set a precedent that forces the closure of such shops in India. Universities that still want to provide packs to their students could instead be forced into potentially expensive licencing arrangements with publishers to reproduce the texts.
Amita Baviskar, associate professor at the Institute of Economic Growth at Delhi University, who has campaigned against the suit, calls it "a case of big-name publishers bullying academics, students and a small shop to make more profit".
"If the court rules in favour of the publishers, access to educational material will become more expensive and the quality of students' learning will suffer.
Students will struggle without course packs," Baviskar told AFP.
Indian copyright law already allows students and academics to photocopy textbook excerpts freely for educational use, under a "fair dealing" provision, according to Baviskar.
Publishers, however, argue that this provision, while allowing an individual to copy small numbers of pages for academic use, doesn't extend to a profit-making photocopying shop generating entire course packs.
According to Sudhir Malhotra, president of the Federation of Indian Publishers, "a photocopying shop which copies excerpts from various books and then sells the resulting course pack for a profit...this is not fair use, this is commercial exploitation of private property". "It's not as if photocopiers are doing it for free. So why blame publishers for wanting their share?" Malhotra told AFP.
The practice of copying textbook excerpts is "typical of emerging economies", according to copyright experts like Jeremy de Beer, associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa in Canada. His published work on the issue includes a 2010 book on copyright law and access to education in eight developing nations, including South Africa, Senegal, Egypt and Kenya.
"What I found was that most universities lack the resources to buy brand-new copies of academic books, so photocopying is integral to the education there," de Beer told AFP in a phone interview. Most libraries de Beer visited housed only one copy of each textbook on the syllabus, making it necessary to photocopy whole books, he said.
Licencing deals long resisted
Publishers do not expect a massive boom in textbook sales even if the lawsuit succeeds, he said. Instead Indian universities are expected to be pushed into new copying arrangements with publishers.
"As far as this case in India is concerned, publishers have an ulterior motive.
They want to create a system whereby the university obtains a copying licence from the publisher in exchange for a flat fee per student," he said. So far, universities have been reluctant to sign licence deals, saying they can rely - through their small photocopy shops - on "fair use" legal provisions to photocopy material.
The Supreme Court of Canada in 2004 ruled on a similar case filed by three legal publishers against the Law Society of Upper Canada. Its verdict supported the Law Society's right to photocopy library materials.
The crucial issue, according to de Beer, is whether an Indian court will regard a privately-held photocopying shop in the same light as a not-for-profit library, and whether the court supports licencing deals.
"If the court in Delhi supports licencing then publishers can use India as an example to drive a global trend," he said.
"In the past, Indian courts have set precedents with important implications for other emerging economies," he said, citing landmark rulings on issues like pharmaceutical patents that helped expand access to cheap drugs in developing nations.
"This case has the potential to create similar shock waves." Prem Vipin said his shop in Delhi University, with its six-odd photocopiers and mounds of papers, remains open as the court battle drags on. But he fears for the future, not just for his business but for the students too.
"We face tough times. But it is the students who will suffer the most," he said.