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Durable Link to this BlogMonday, June 05, 2006

Concept of Copyright in Ancient India

We received many inquiries about tradition of Copyrights in India (I believe due to some of the recent controversies involving Indians and People of Indian origin), and one of the researchers requested my opinion on the concept of Copyright in ancient India.

The concept of proprietary right of an author over his work did not exist in ancient India. All knowledge was meant for public utility and not for any gain to the individual.

The reason is simple. Writing was believed to be the result of, Dhee Sakti or intellectual power obtained only through God's grace. Naham Karta, Harirkarta, I am not the doer, Hari or God is the Doer was the humble belief of a scholar. Hence no commercial gain was attached to the work of an author. Every book was the result of long standing painful efforts which could not be counted in terms of money.

Nor did the great writers aspire for personal publicity or propaganda; they cared for popularity of their subject. The book was a dedication to God first and last. Hence most of the books in ancient times, literary or non-literary, start with invocation to God or their favorite deity and end with a colophon and benedictory prayer.

For centuries, palm-leaf books formed treasure of learning. They were few and rare, before paper and printing made their appearance in India. Access to books was rare. Hand-copying was in vogue. To get the copies of books made and distributing them free was considered a meritorious act. Even copyists thought their duty was a sacred one.

Merit of a book was established in the assembly of scholars in the presence of a king or nobleman, who himself would be a well-versed scholar. Once approved by the learned, the works were available to the public.

Oral system of learning prevailed and books were read to a attentive listeners. Repeating, memorising and reproducing were more important; book reading and writing were considered secondary. Books were not on sale. Hence the question of copyright did not bother our past authors.

Well known writers and poets got all the encouragement from the rulers. A distinguished writer was invariably a court poet. He was publicly felicitated from time to time after his bona-fides were established. He used to get good remuneration in terms of land and money.

Works on poetics profusely quoted the original authors, with courtesy. Popularity of his work was the greatest aspiration for a writer. The reach and not the reward being their aim, the selfish idea of making name or money by establishing authorship never struck the ancient writers. Only books of universal appeal and eternal values have survived in Sanskrit or regional languages. Proprietary rights have no meaning to works of Vyasa, Valmiki, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti and hundreds of other writers.

If there were instances of plagiarism, there is no record of them. Many court poets and writers lent their patron's name to their valued works, willingly or through sheer obedience. It was left to critics of later centuries, to establish the authentic authorship.

Amma's Column by Jyotsna Kamat

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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