New Delhi: On a February morning, Srinidhi Hande went out to the Marina Beach in Chennai for a group run. He ran a little, and then he took some photos for his blog, including one of a parked police car.
On 26 September, Hande saw that photo again—published without credit in the local edition of The Times of India. “I was reading the newspaper, and it looked familiar,” Hande says. “Then I realized it was my image. It matched, pixel for pixel.”
Hande’s photo isn’t difficult to find; it’s the first one that Google Images returns for the words “Chennai police car”.
The sheer ease of finding pictures online appears to have begun to tempt Indian publications into reaching illegally for photos on blogs and online albums such as Flickr. These photos are mostly published without permission, due credit, or compensation—copyright infringement, in legalese.
A screenshot of Srinidhi Hande’s blog, and the photograph that was used by ‘The Times of India’ without his permission.
Within the community of Indian bloggers, a sense of outrage has begun to organize itself into a movement against this trend of plagiarism. Blogger Sudipta Chatterjee called for a “blogathon” on 2 October, Gandhi’s birthday, asking bloggers to vent about the issue to raise awareness.
Another blogger, Dilip Muralidaran, has begun documenting instances of plagiarism on a blog called, unflinchingly, “Indian Press Are Thieves,” and he has started copyright consciousness workshops. Hande is launching an online petition, and says he is determined to embed watermarks in his uploaded images: “Times Of India, please do not copy this image.”
While The Times of India takes the bulk of such complaints, bloggers have also accused other publications such as the Hindustan Times, and vernacular newspapers such as the Ananda Vikatan and Kumudam, and the erstwhile Air Deccan in-flight magazine SimpliFly.
Asked about these allegations, Rahul Kansal, chief marketing officer of Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, publisher of the The Times of India, says the newspaper is cracking down.
“Unfortunately, this is one of those things that newspapers have gotten used to doing and has acquired some sort of legitimacy by conventional practice,” says Kansal. “We definitely don’t want to exploit India’s traditionally lax intellectual property rights regime, and we are working to weed this practice out completely.”
Still, he adds: “What happens is that there are websites that aggregate these images and say they are free for download and use. Some instances have come to our attention, and we have told our editors to be very careful and put an end to this practice.”
Hande says that he attempted to contact The Times of India in Chennai in multiple ways—through email, people he knew, and the main telephone number. But he made no progress. “I felt (it was) no use trying to contact them,” he wrote on his blog.
Hande isn’t alone in his frustration. Inevitably, complainants have raged for weeks against a tide of rebuffs before they got anywhere. Priyanka Sachar, who blogs as the Twilight Fairy, sought restitution for three months after The Times of India published her Flickr photo of yellow amaltas flowers.
When she blogged about the incident, her post received more than 130 comments, a number of them claiming, in angry solidarity, to have gone through similar experiences.
The woman whom she finally talked to “initially apologized and said it wasn’t intentional, which sounded like a lame excuse”, Sachar says. Later she was offered a compensation of Rs250 and then raised it to Rs1,500.
“She said if it wasn’t enough, the matter would have to go to the legal department,” said Sachar.
To Sachar, that sounded like a threat. She consulted a few lawyers and began publicizing the incident online. “Only then did they call me back and agree to my demanded fee of Rs10,000,” she says. “I’ve noticed this is happening with alarming regularity now.”
The Hindustan Times, which is published by HT Media Ltd, has also faced similar allegations. For instance, Archana S.R., a Bangalore-based photographer, blogged last month that a Mumbai supplement of the Hindustan Times had reproduced her photo of an eco-friendly Ganesha idol, without permission.
“We would not tolerate any infringement of copyright, be it infringement on the part of our journalists or someone else infringing on (our) copyright,” says Sanjoy Narayan, recently appointed editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times. “There is a need for greater awareness all around about the sensitivity of copyrights. Digital media is relatively new in India, and sometimes people don’t realize that creative work online is also published under copyrights.”
Mint, which is also published by HT Media, has specific guidelines for its staff on both text and photos as part of its Code of Conduct, which says: “We don’t copy the work of others… We do not plagiarize, meaning that we do not take the work of others and pass it off as our own.” (The full Code is available on Mint’s website, www.livemint.com.)
Palash Ranjan Bhowmick, photo editor at the Business India, admits that he understands the constraints and complexities that photo desks work under in this age of rapid journalism.
“Often we’re told suddenly: ‘We need a photo for this story.’ And downloading a photo is so easy and cost-effective, so it’s tempting,” he says. “But I’m against this downloading business entirely. I’m pretty upset at what has become the order of the day.”
Under Web standards developed by the non-profit Trade of Commons International, a licence of “Creative Commons” allows a photo to be reproduced with due attribution, but authors can also insist that it be used without modification and for non-commercial purposes.
Another legal doctrine, “fair use”, or “fair dealing” as it is known in India, comes into play only if there are few alternatives and if use of a copyrighted photo undermines its potential market.
During her lengthy campaign, Sachar was told, by way of tenuous justification, that newspapers often used “free” Internet photos. It reinforces a common misconception that content on amateur blogs and Flickr is devoid of copyright protection, a misconception that Muralidaran is fighting to shatter.
Muralidaran, a software engineer in Chennai, has had his photos plagiarized twice, by a Tamil media house and then by a Hyderabad city portal.
In both cases, he doggedly pursued the matter until he became one of the very few complainants to extract a legal admission and levy a retroactive charge, known as a licence correction fee. (Under the terms of those agreements, Muralidaran cannot name the two media companies.)
“Publications cite fair use, but that only applies if they really have no other alternative, which is not true here,” Muralidaran says. “Even a lot of Creative Commons-protected content can only be used in non-commercial work. A newspaper is not non-commercial.”
Another misconception, held even by Muralidaran, is that soft copies fall outside the ambit of Indian copyright law.
“That isn’t true at all,” says Saikrishna Rajagopal, managing partner of law firm Saikrishna and Associates. “The Indian Copyright Act prohibits reproducing work in any material form, and that includes electronic form.”
Publications continue to steal images, Rajagopal says, because they get away with it. “They think nobody will take action,” he says. “If you can create a disincentive to infringement, so that if you’re caught, you’re made to cough up a substantial sum of money, then they’ll think twice.” (Saikrishna and Associates is outside counsel for HT Media on unrelated ongoing legal matters.)
But until courts are willing to award daunting damages in such lawsuits, and process them faster and smoother, Muralidaran’s brand of aggressive bluster may have to work instead.
“I called the publication and threatened to sell my equipment to bribe the police, have their offices sealed and their hard drives confiscated for cyber crime, then sue under Section 420 for fraud and also for sexual harassment,” he says. “That’s when they finally realised that I wasn’t going away.”