In the Crucible of Debate: Analysing the Evolution of Copyright and Translation Terms- Part I

Discussing the history of the terms of copyright and translations in Independent India by sifting through the Parliamentary Debates, we are pleased to bring you this three part post by Prachi Mathur. Prachi, who wrote this while interning with SpicyIP, is a Third-Year B.A., LL.B (Hons) student at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. Please note that for the parts where the source material was in Hindi, translations have been done by Prachi.

Union Education Minister K L Shrimali introduced the bill in Rajya Sabha. Image from here.

In the Crucible of Debate: Analysing the Evolution of Copyright and Translation Terms- Part I

By Prachi Mathur

The historical development of the term of copyright and the term of translations (the duration after which translations of works will not be considered an infringement) presents us with a curious case of amendments to the original Copyright Bill of 1957 (‘the Bill’). When it was first introduced by the then Union Minister of Education, Mr. K.L. Shrimali, the term of both copyright and the term of translations was set at 25 years. Post the Joint Parliamentary Committe’s Report on the Bill, the former was increased to 50 years, whereas the latter was reduced to 10 years. What led to this divergence? In this two-part blog, I will be analysing the historical debates and developments of the terms of copyright. 

In this part of the post, I would,  give a brief overview of the socio-economic context surrounding the discussions on the term of copyright. The next part of the post captures the different perspectives on the appropriate duration of copyrights. These include arguments for longer and shorter duration of copyrights, and the notion that affixing uniform terms is arbitrary. brought up when the Bill was being debated. In the conclusion I will highlight the major developments in the term of copyright post the Copyright Act of 1957.

The Setting and the Context

The term of copyright is perhaps one of the most important defining features of any copyright law. It determines the tangible period during which the owner of copyright can exercise their right. During this term, the owner usually has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, display, perform, and translate their works.

In the first-ever copyright statute that was enacted during the East India Company’s regime in 1847, the term of copyright was set at the lifetime of the author plus seven year. However, this term had an upper cap of forty-two years. Many years later, we had the Indian Copyright Act, 1914, which was the first comprehensive legislation in India that dealt with copyright protection. It was enacted during the British colonial period and served as the primary legal framework for copyright in India until it was repealed and replaced by the 1957 Act. This act had a much more generous term of copyright protection. The term varied depending on the nature of the work. For literary, dramatic, and musical works, copyright lasted for the lifetime of the author plus 50 years after their death. In the case of photographs and artistic works, the term was 50 years from the date of publication. However, the original bill did not envisage a 50-year term for copyright. Instead, the original term was 25 years, and this provision regarding copyright ended up being one of the most debated ones – until the final enactment of the bill retained the 50-year period.

When the bill was first introduced in 1952, India was already a signatory to the Brussels text (1948) of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (“Berne Convention”). [access various texts of the Berne Convention here]. Although the original bill largely fell in line with the 1914 Act and the Berne Convention, Prashant Reddy T. and Sumathi Chandrashekaran, in their book ‘Create, Copy, Disrupt: India’s Intellectual Property Dilemmas’ (p.120-121), note how the proposal of the 25-year term in the original bill was a departure from the Berne Convention (and the 1914 Act) both of which provided 50-year terms for copyright.

This new term immediately received a backlash from the lobby of authors and publishers. This happened at two levels – within JPC and outside JPC. Firstly, quite a few of the members were associated with academia, literature or fine arts – Prof G. Ranga (academic, and a primarily academic author); Ramdhari Singh Dinkar (academic, and famous mainstream Hindi and Maithili author); Kaka Kalelkar (editorialist and author); Banarsi Das Chaturvedi (writer and journalist); Lilavati Munshi (Gujarati author); Prof. Dr. Raghu Vira (linguist); B. S. Murthy (journalist and author [p. 17]); N.C. Laskar (singer and musician); Nageshwar Prasad (journalist); Joachim Alva (journalist); T. S. Avinashilingam Chettiar (author and former Education Minister of Madras Presidency); Hifzur Rahman (Sunni Islamic scholar and author); Lanka Sundaram (academic and international law scholar); M. S. Gurupadaswamy (author and editor); and, Maulana Azad (writer and Islamic theologian). [Access brief biographical sketches of parliamentarians here]. Secondly, a number of author’s associations also pressurised the government. These included the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers; the British Joint Copyright Council; the All-India Centre of PEN; and the All-India Hindi Publishers Association. As explained by Prashant and Sumathi (page 123 of their book), these organizations influenced the JPC’s decision on the two provisions which would have otherwise put India at loggerheads with the Berne Convention. Ultimately, the JPC recommended that India should comply with the Berne Convention and suggested to fix the term as life of the author plus 50 years.  

Interestingly, even though the term of copyright protection was something that affected authors and publishers alike, the concerns voiced by the parliamentarians were overwhelmingly occupied by (or at least, claimed to be occupying) the author’s perspective. [Note how P V Kane claimed that he represented “the author’s point of view” (p. 91, 16 Feb).] Admittedly, the needs and interests of authors were more pressing during that time due to the socio-economic conditions of authors during that time; but in my opinion, this emphasis is to do with the rhetoric of the copyright debate. When the interests of authors and publishers coincided, the latter were merely seen as “ancillary interests”. This might be because more parliamentarians were authors than publishers, or, more strongly because of the socialist underpinnings of the debates. Seen from this perspective, publishers were only seen as minting money out of the creative works of the authors, and providing no value to the society. Indeed, on multiple occasions, members highlighted protecting authors from exploitation and indigency as one of the main objectives of the Act. As such, the discussions on the term of copyright primarily revolved around striking a balance between providing adequate protection to creators and ensuring that works enter the public domain within a reasonable timeframe to promote cultural access and creativity. There were differing views on the optimal duration of copyright protection. Part II of the post explores these differing views.

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