In the mid 5th Century, St. Columba, an Irish Gaelic missionary in Ireland, copied by hand a manuscript he had probably taken without permission from St. Finian, another missionary colleague at Clonary Abbey. St. Columba tried to justify his copying saying that the original book did not suffer from his copying. No, St. Finian insisted, it was theft.
The dispute was escalated to King Diarmait, probably the first judge to preside over a copyright case. The king delivered a ruling that would have delighted booklovers (and dairy farmers!): “To every cow belongs its calf; to every book its copy.” This meant that the calf belonged to the cow and every copy belonged to the original owner of the book.
This battle for copyright from the mediaeval age still rages today. And on Friday, March 30, 2017, this battle was fought in Nairobi, when thousands of books were recycled into paper in Nairobi’s Industrial Area. Copyright board officials, the media, publishers, authors and other booklovers gathered for the sombre ceremony.
There was something forlorn, even unsettling, in the way the thousands of books were transported to the “recycle bin” and the brevity of it all. The books had earlier been netted from book pirates in downtown Nairobi.
The International Publishers Association defines book piracy as “the unauthorised use of copyrighted works… whether in print or digital form” creating significant harmful effects throughout the book chain, hurting publishers, distributors and retailers, but also authors and readers.
This definition shows that even readers (in the case of textbooks pupils/students) are affected when they use pirated books.
As publishers, we have had some strange requests from people who bought books from pirates. Such people call publishers to complain that the “books they bought from us” have pages falling off the spines and that they want replacements or refunds.
What most people do not know is that piracy avails to the children of Kenya materials of inferior quality. Even when pirates get the printing right (they rarely do), children are still in danger of being exposed to inferior quality.
Since pirates mostly scan pages of genuine printed books, it’s easy to miss a page or even mix pages from different titles.
At other times, pirates print older versions of book titles that publishers have already revised (to respond to needs of teachers and pupils/students).
Fading of colours is especially serious for the sciences like in chemistry, where students are sometimes required to identify chemical substances by their colour.
Books from mainstream publishers are heavily regulated by the government on technical specifications through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) right to the paper (grammage, opacity, grain direction) so they can be durable in schools. Book pirates throw all this caution to the wind for a quick buck.
Piracy also deprives authors of their right to earn an income from their sweat. The writing process is laborious; requiring a lot of sacrifice mostly in seclusion to think hard and write.
Also, book pirates do not pay taxes on what they sell, thus depriving the government of revenue.
And of course, piracy affects the local industry’s ability to function. A vibrant publishing industry is not only good for the economy but also as a custodian of Kenyan culture. Piracy erodes these gains as it is done in secrecy by shady operators who are obviously not registered and do not operate legally.
It’s worth remembering that, in the digital age, piracy has evolved and copying has been made easier. Electronic files can be created and spread over the Internet in a relatively short period of time. A few years ago, a memoir written by a high-flying Kenyan public official was shared as a pdf version. Apart from depriving the author of the royalties after such hard work, there was also the decline in the perceived value of the book.
From the foregoing, it is clear that in cases of piracy, everyone loses out (except the pirates). It’s therefore important that everyone from parents, teachers and pupils/students be on the lookout.
One of the simplest solutions is to buy books from bona fide bookshops and not from briefcase booksellers who appear and disappear in a flash.
There are many other solutions, of course, some simple and others complex but none beats public awareness to ensure that the public opens its collective eye when buying books and report any suspicious activities to government authorities.
We should remind the pirates that to every cow belongs its calf; to every book its copy.
There is no justification for piracy under any circumstances.