Banning books doesn’t work

Banning books doesn’t work

This newspaper doesn’t quite like the idea of anybody having the power to ban a book, but isn’t unduly worried that such attempts (and more on these anon) will stop the spread of thoughts, stories or ideas.

Depending on geography, history and background, the list of subjects considered “sacred" in the country include the extended Gandhi family, Ambedkar, Periyar, Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Veer Savarkar and maybe a few thousand more people, some alive, some dead. James Laine’s book has met with opposition in Maharashtra because it is about Shivaji, the Maratha king many people in the state—at least those making a living from politics—hold dear.

The reason such bans do not work is because the nature of the books business has changed. Paper isn’t the only medium through which ideas or stories can now be communicated. Many of them can be communicated through digital media. And while piracy (just to clarify, this newspaper is against it) prevents the creators of content from being rewarded for their efforts, it ensures that books and movies that aren’t meant to be available in a particular region are—freely.

One example of this is a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani that started life as an authorized version, but soon became unauthorized. The book was presumably banned in India, though it is quite likely that the publishers were threatened with a lawsuit and prudently chose to not release the book in India. Years passed, the rights reverted to the author who wasn’t too keen to establish them, and pirated copies of the book, printed in small units in New Delhi and Mumbai, started appearing. The production quality was poor, but depending on individual bargaining skills, buyers could read all about the early years of Reliance Industries for anything between Rs50 and Rs500. It isn’t clear if efforts were made to stop distribution of the book, but this is irrelevant because they would have failed anyway. It took a decade and a half in the case of this book, but ideas (and IP) flow much faster now. Should Laine’s book be banned, pirated copies will likely be available in the next few weeks. And conscientious protesters trying to prevent the author’s version of history from being told will only ensure a wider readership.

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