The Delhi High Court on the 16th of September, 2016 pronounced a landmark verdict in the case of The Chancellor, Masters & Scholars of The University of Oxford & ors. Vs. Rameshwari Photocopy Services & Anr that is likely to bring about a far-flung impact on the copyright laws in India wherein it dismissed the plea filed by three international publishers against the sale of photocopied books in Delhi University and held that the educational exception under section 52(1)(i) of the copyright act is broad enough to cover the acts of photocopying and the creation of course packs by Delhi University (DU) for their students.

Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and Taylor & Francis, and other academic publishers filed a petition in August 2012 against Rameshwari Photocopy Services and the University of Delhi seeking relief of a permanent injunction restraining the two defendants namely from infringing the copyright of the plaintiffs by way of photocopying, reproduction and distribution of copies of plaintiffs’ publications on a large scale and further circulating the same. The alleged photocopy shop had a license from Delhi University to make course packs for the students of the University.

The plaintiffs alleged that the photo copy kiosk was violating their copyright at the instance of Delhi University thereby causing huge financial loss to the plaintiff as students stopped buying the former’s text books. On the other hand, the students of the University argued that photocopier’s course packs were indispensable for their educational purposes given the high price of the textbooks that they would otherwise have to buy. Furthermore, the University of Delhi supported the photocopy kiosk, stating that the use of reproduced copyrighted books by student would fall under reasonable educational need and should not be treated as infringement.

The defendants denied the allegations put forth and submitted that it had been granted license as regards a small shop within the University campus to provide photocopy services to students and faculty at nominal rates and as per the terms of license, the defendant photocopy kiosk was required to provide 3000 photocopies per month to the University of Delhi, free of cost and to charge only the prescribed rate for the photocopy services meted out to others. It further submitted that the University recommended certain extracts of the publication as part of the syllabi and that the students would be reluctant to buy the entire publication just for reading a particular extract. With the motive to ease the financial burden on students, most of the publications recommended in the syllabi are housed in the University library which allows students to obtain copies for their own reference and study. Having stated these facts, the defendants submitted that their services were availed by the students and faculty only for educational purposes and reference and hence is not commercially exploiting the plaintiff’s copyright.

Furthermore, the University of Delhi contested the suit and argued that calling reproduction of copyrighted books for educational purpose as infringement was erroneous and submitted that the photocopy of copyrighted books at the university’s campus were done by students for preparation of their course and was not meant for commercial exploitation. They pleaded that the world over Universities permit students to copy limited pages from any work for use in research and for use in the classroom by a student or teacher and this is recognized by Sections 52(1)(a) & (i) of the Copyright Act, 1957. The exemptions on ‘fair use’ of work under the Copyright Act included use for educational purposes and therefore such use would not fall under the purview of copyright infringement. They also brought to the attention of the court that the plaintiffs have not shown assignments made by authors and owners of copyright in favour of the latter.

In furtherance of the submissions of the parties to the suits, a commissioner was appointed by the court to look into the matter. In September 2012, the court passed an order directing the Delhi University to analyze the proposal of the plaintiffs for obtaining a license from the Indian Reprographic Rights Organization (IRRO) for producing course packs. The Indian Reprographic Rights Organization (IRRO) is a copyright society that grants licenses to various organizations in order to enable them to copy and share information efficiently across the organization while minimizing the risk of copyright infringement. However, in November 2012, the iconic photocopy shop was restrained by the order of the Delhi High Court from issuing copies of the textbooks of the Publishers until the final disposal of the application for interim relief.

The second defendant, The University of Delhi appealed against the restraining order passed by the Delhi High Court. In addition, an association called SPEAK (Society for the Promotion of Educational Access and Knowledge) was formed by a group of academics impleaded in the matter supporting the defendants. Further, another association called ASEAK (Association of Students for Equitable Access to Knowledge) was setup by the students to highlight the suffering caused by the court’s restraining order. They submitted before the court that it was not possible for the students to continue studying without photocopied notes as hardly any of them could afford buying new books.

After four years of diligent hearings, Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw lifted the ban on the photocopier kiosk from issuing copies of chapters from textbooks of the three international publishers to students. He noted in his order that the while considering the issue of copyright infringement in the current case, the Indian law has to take account of the unique socio-economic condition of the country such as resource constraints.  The court held the students’ interest as paramount and in its ruling concentrated on the aspect of affordability of low-cost textbooks through photocopying. The Court also noted that the phrase “to issue copies of the work to the public” under Section 14 (a) (ii) cannot be interpreted as “making copies of the work”. However, the court also stated:

The defendant No.2 University thus, though entitled to issue the books, published by the plaintiffs and purchased by it and kept by the defendant No.2 University in its library, to whosoever is entitled to issuance of the said books from the library, per Section 14(a)(i) and Section 51(a)(i) would not be entitled to make photocopies of substantial part of the said book for distribution to the students and if does the same, would be committing infringement of the copyright therein.”

With respect the defendant’s contention that issuing copies of course packs fell under the exception of Section 52, the Court stated that:

Similarly here, to hold that inspite of the legislature having declared the actions listed in Section 52 to be not amounting to infringement, the same have to be viewed putting on the blinkers of being infringement would amount to holding that the Copyright Act which allows actions listed in Section 52 to be done without the same constituting infringement and consequences thereof not constituting infringing copy, cannot be done to the extent permitted by the language of Section 52. I thus agree with the contention of the senior counsel for the defendant no.2 University that the rights of persons mentioned in Section 52 are to be interpreted following the same rules as the rights of a copyright owner and are not to be read narrowly or strictly or so as not to reduce the ambit of Section 51, as is the rule of interpretation of statutes in relation to provisos or exceptions.”

The Court thus noted that if a student issued a book from the library of the and copied the same, whether by hand or by photocopying or by taking photographs of pages of a textbook on his/her cellphone and then proceeded to print the same for their private or personal use, such use would be protected under the exemption of fair dealing. Therefore, the court stated that it was unreasonable to state that if the Defendant no.2, Delhi University did the exact same act due to its resource constraints, its action would constitute infringement and not be protected under the fair dealing exemption. Accordingly, the Court stated:

When the effect of the action is the same, the difference in the mode of action cannot make a difference so as to make one an offence.”

The court also stated that the original Defendant photocopy kiosk was not a competitor of the plaintiffs as they were only making compilations of certain parts of prescribed textbooks for the students. In the 94-page whopping judgement, Justice Endlaw also stated as below:

Copyright, especially in literary works, is thus not an inevitable, divine, or natural right that confers on authors the absolute ownership of their creations. It is designed rather to stimulate activity and progress in the arts for the intellectual enrichment of the public. Copyright is intended to increase and not to impede the harvest of knowledge. It is intended to motivate the creative activity of authors and inventors in order to benefit the public.”

 Accordingly, based on the above mentioned inferences drawn, the Delhi High Court concluded that the actions of the defendants did not amount to infringement of the copyright of the plaintiffs and the suit was dismissed without costs.

Although the landmark verdict has set a precedent for the applicability of copyright law in educational cases in India, in my opinion, a balance is to be drawn such that the rights of the publishing houses as well as the interests of the students are protected simultaneously without amounting to copyright infringement. The big win-win for the defendants turned out to be disheartening loss for Publishing Houses.  Photocopying kiosks can be prevented from creating course packs of academic books unless they are granted licenses from IRRO. This would not only ensure that there is no commercial exploitation but also make sure that the interests of the publishers are not kept at bay thereby drawing a balance between both ends.