Oxford and Cambridge sue in copyright controversy

Oxford University Press

Duncan Hull under a Creative Commons Licence

When a person walks by a beggar, they always have a choice. They can choose to help the beggar with food and shelter or can tell him to go and find a job.

When a doctor has a patient who can’t afford medical services, they always have a choice. They can offer their services at a discounted rate or turn the patient away.

When a lawyer gets a case that would allow the upliftment of society, they always have a choice. They can choose to take the case pro bono or charge a steep legal fee.

When Cambridge University Press (CUP) and Oxford University Press (OUP) learnt that their books were being photocopied by students in a developing country who wouldn’t be able to afford the university course materials otherwise, they too had a choice. The choice to sue Delhi University and Rameshwari Photocopy Services, the local photocopy shop, or to find ways to make their material more accessible to students in a lower-income bracket and enable them to graduate with the best education possible in their circumstances.

It can be argued under most copyright laws that to allow photocopying of textbooks and selling those photocopies is illegal, and that the photocopy shop in this case stands to profit. It can simultaneously be argued that under Indian Copyrights Amendment Act (s52) or Berne’s Convention (Art. 9(2) and 10(2)) reproduction of material for academic purposes is allowed to ensure that students get access to the best academic material there is. While these arguments will be made in today’s hearing and the legalities debated in a court of law, there is a bigger question about the values of two of the most prominent educational institutions in the world and their university presses.

‘A university press can provide a voice that speaks for values of academic concern and should disseminate on knowledge on matters of public interest,’ claimed Henry Reece, former CEO of Oxford University Press, in an Oxford journal. For a non-profit publication that is exempt from paying taxes, and provides a minimum of $19.5 million in surplus to the university annually, it appears that the university press is more interested in disseminating knowledge about public interest, then disseminating knowledge for the public interest.[1]

Cambridge University Press is in a similar boat with its mission of ‘Advancing learning, knowledge and research worldwide’. It too is a surplus-making non-profit entity that annually commits money back to the university.[2]

With such noble missions, why are two of the world’s oldest, largest and wealthiest university presses choosing to pursue a lawsuit that would deny thousands of students access to academic material for the purpose of learning? Especially when they’re minting a surplus amount of money? My mind struggles to hold back from jumping to the conclusion that perhaps their mission are ones that merely exist on paper, and that motives of greed and self-interest may be a lot more powerful than they are willing to acknowledge publicly. I fail to comprehend how paying an exorbitant amount of money to the already overflowing stash of pounds sterling at these universities is more likely to ‘advance education worldwide’ than allowing tens of thousands of Indian students to graduate with a quality, affordable education.

My father was a direct beneficiary of publicly supported tertiary education. His family put aside half of their entire savings every month to be able to support him at university. Had he been forced to buy text books, he would have had no choice but to drop out, and I would have grown up in poverty, just like him. As a person who is a direct beneficiary to affordable government university education in India, I sincerely request Oxford and Cambridge University Presses to drop the lawsuit and champion the legacy of advancing education worldwide and pursue their centuries-old mission.

Jhatkaa.org has launched a petition asking Oxford and Cambridge University Press to make the choice to withdraw their lawsuit and choose to pursue the mission of affordable access to education. Plesae read, sign and spread the word about the petition.

[1] November 2005, “Biggest Aims for Better”, Jane Dudeman, Oxford Journals eprint

[2] Cambridge University Press website