In a case that calls more for gold stars than gold doubloons, the government of Guyana and major British publishing houses have at last come to an agreement over textbook purchases—no copyright infringement necessary. This was the latest and hopefully final chapter of a plot in which the Guyanese government publicly called for tenders to provide pirated textbooks for underfunded schools across the country.
In a controversial September show-and-tell, Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr. Robert Luncheon confirmed actions that allegedly violated not only the Guyanese government’s own law in the form of a 1966 Copyright Order that extended the United Kingdom’s Copyright Act 1956 to Guyana, but also Caribbean law (CARICOM’S Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas) and international law (Berne Convention 1886 and the Universal Copyright Convention 1950).
While retailers in Guyanese cities have long sold pirated works in the open, many considered it quite another thing for official government action to involve trading in pirated material. The government cited its inability to afford the original textbooks, with President Donald Ramotar having asked the United Nations to review copyright legislation for “posing difficulty on developing countries and […] hindering universal education” [sic]. The government claimed that pirated textbooks would cost $3 as opposed to $10 each, and that purchasing originals at full price would result in only one set of required textbooks per classroom, rather than one set for each of the public school system’s 250,000 students to access.
Unimpressed with this economic shortcut, the British Publishers’ Association (BPA) successfully filed for an injunction at the Guyanese High Court in late September, despite meetings between Guyanese ministry officials and members of the British High Commission. The BPA, a lobbying body of over one hundred top publishers such as Macmillan, Random House, Nelson Thornes, Oxford University Press, and Cambridge University Press, reported a lack of response to their complaints on the part of then-Education Minister Shaik Baksh and claimed that they had always been willing to enter reasonable negotiations for lowered textbook prices. Under the injunction, Guyana stayed the would-be GUY$119 million photocopying deal while retailers stopped selling pirated books.
With both parties having now decided to play nice, the Guyanese government will pay GUY$170 million for original textbooks from the publishers themselves, at a 50% discount from Macmillan and 60% discount from Nelson Thorne (originally 20% and 30% respectively, in early negotiations with less senior personnel).
This case is fascinating for how it struck right at the scented sticker heart of much copyright controversy, the nature of which was once described as “good guys versus good guys”.
On the one hand, it seems intuitively wrong that access to a good basic education be kept out of the hands of children purely due to their country’s economic circumstances, circularly making it even harder for said countries to rise above such circumstances. A human rights issue is potentially at stake. From this perspective, copyright may be construed as a capitalist or colonialist gatekeeper, considering Guyana’s history and the source of its 1966 Copyright Order. More elaborate examples are available regarding Jamaica and Palestine (although this case does feature works that are not Guyanese but British, created in the UK under their own, native copyright laws).
On another hand (as far as copyright is concerned, a more appropriate figure of speech might assume a creature with more than just two limbs), it seems equally intuitively correct that creators of a work should be compensated for use of their work, with the compensation proportionate to ubiquity of use, reflecting the high quality or particularly beneficial nature of the work and presumably the effort put into producing it. From this one arrives at the utilitarian notion of copyright as a bargain theory-driven incentive to create, in the name of “promoting progress”.
The question this case seems to provoke is: at what point does the existence of copyright stop promoting progress and start hindering it? One could argue that this is tautological, as authors may not have written textbooks to begin with were it not for copyright. At the same time, it’s true that many copyright laws were written among and for specific technological, economic, behavioural, social, and global contexts, many of which may no longer be the case today.Considering the copious perspectives on copyright and its purpose, this is one problem for which the solution will likely not be found in the back of a child’s textbook.
Cynthia Khoo is a JD Candidate at the University of Victoria.