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Life after Kaavya

After the Kaavya Viswanathan episode, a few Indian publishing houses are looking at tightening their gatekeeper clauses, writes SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY


You trust the author Pramod Kapoor



RAISING A STORM Harvard University sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan

The publishing industry would like to treat it as a freak incident. But even for a freak case, it has demanded a lot of airtime and ink. It is perhaps our misfortune that Kaavya, the girl who penned "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild And Got A Life", is a Viswanathan (read Indian). However, the issue of lifting passages from a fellow writer's novels without furnishing acknowledgement is a subject of greater concern. Let's check out the principles that publishing houses usually go by in commissioning a book back home in India. Can they avert such a situation? Or are they now looking at amending the existing clauses in the contract that they customarily sign with the authors?

Matter of trust

Says Pramod Kapoor, Chief Executive Officer of Roli Books, "Nobody can take any precaution against such a situation. One invariably begins by trusting the author." Also, he adds, "We can imagine the source if an author lifts from a Vikram Seth novel or an Arundhati Roy book but how do you check a not-so-popular original work?" Even if one is a voracious reader, Kapoor argues "you might remember the plots but not the exact words."


Concurs Vivek Ahuja, General Manager, Random House India, "Let's hope it is one-off. It is practically impossible for any publishing house to check each and every book and spot an act of plagiarism in a manuscript." The contract that a publisher signs with an author mentions that the author "promises" that the work is authentic, he points out. And that is why the copyright lies with the author. "Though the publisher is a party to it, it is the author who is finally legally responsible. The loss of money aside, the loss of face to a publisher in such a case is beyond calculation," he says.

Having started operation in India, Vivek is already looking at the safety aspects of publishing. "I am already looking at copyright laws to make contracts more stringent," he says.

Our Copyright Act 1957 safeguards the words of a literary work but not ideas. Same is the case worldwide. Even Dan Brown, whose bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code" published by Ahuja's Random House in the U.S. and the U.K., was accused of stealing the idea of the book and the publishing house couldn't say for sure that the idea was original.

Points out Sugata Ghosh, Commissioning Editor, Sage, "This kind of passage lifting happens more in fiction. The review system of a manuscript of a non-fiction work is much stricter. Once the editor feels the book is interesting, it is sent for peer review where neither the author nor the reviewer knows who is who. This does a lot of gate-keeping against plagiarism."

"No," says Thomas Abraham, president, Penguin India. "I don't have the facts ready but I am sure if any checking is done, one would find that the most cases of plagiarism happen in educational books and there is no copyright on facts and history." The violation of our Copyright Act can lead up to a one-year jail term plus a fine between Rs.50,000 and Rs. 1 lakh. But there is nothing to cover fact-lifting.

P. M. Sukumar, president, Harper Collins, feels, "At times, an author might come under such a spell of his favourite writer that unconsciously it enters the psyche." But going to the extent of being so much "inclined" to an author as to lift as many as 24 passages (as Kaavya did) is something not just accidental, he thinks.

"The author contract is roughly uniform across the world and has enough teeth to charge the author if he/she breaches the trust of a publisher," he says, content with the existing rules. Sukumar also smells a rat at the role played by the book packaging company, which reportedly shares copyright of Kaavya's book.

Kapish Mehra of Rupa though calls for amendments in the Copyright Act to safeguard the interests of the publisher. "We look at three things before commissioning a book — the idea, the continuity of thought and the feasibility to sell and none has any copyright. I call for stricter laws wherein a publishing house is not held responsible for an author's fraud on his readers."

Abraham mentions that Penguin India, the importer of Kaavya's book here, received instructions from Little, Brown, the publisher of "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild And Got A Life" to take the copies off the shelves. "We have asked the distributors to return the books. Though we imported 15,000 copies, it has been very well-received and I am sure only four to five thousand copies will come back," he says.

Well, only time will tell if the call-back act means the death of the issue or just the beginning.

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