On March 29, 2014, I happily received one of Kenyatta University’s most prestigious awards — the Outstanding Young Alumni Award. The award recognises particular contribution to society and is given to only one alumni a year. I am only one of less than 30 awardees from university’s 50,000 strong alumni.
Yet, I have just sent a note to Kenyatta University that I might be returning the award to protest against the wanton copyright infringement rampant in the university’s literature department, where my book The Last Villains of Molo, has been a study text.
It will be ironic of me to hold on to an award for contribution to creative writing in Kenya, while the issuer of the award is, with the other hand, stifling creativity. The use of complete photocopies of books is not discouraged, but in some cases abetted by staff.
I visited Pwani University last week, where, to my chagrin, I encountered a photocopy of the entire book. Out of the over 100 students I was speaking to, none seemed to have seen an original copy. Yet most had read the text. It is no wonder that the students were struggling to answer a question that required them to examine the cover page – they have never seen the real cover!
It can no longer be business as usual. Only last week, I attended a meeting where Longhorn, my publisher, was hosting its top writers. The creative industry is on its knees. A huge chunk of revenues is being eroded by pirates. The result is that publishers will soon redirect the already meagre resources to segments that generate more revenue – text books. We are killing our future by allowing our students to use photocopied books in class.
It is not just immoral, it is illegal (copyright laws only allow for excerpts to be reproduced, not entire books).
I see three reasons that this destructive activity goes on unabated:
1. The myth that photocopies are cheaper than buying the original text. It costs about Sh300 to photocopy The Last Villains of Molo. A digital edition of the same, available on android and IOS devices, costs Sh200. The original costs Sh400. Not to mention that it is less bulky than it’s spiral bound counterfeit.
2. The subtle support of photocopy culture by university staff — Sample some comments from my readers when I complained about the photocopy culture:
“The lecturers told us to photocopy the books. I was introduced to Kinyanjui Kombani’s books by my lecturer, who was actually his friend and who made us copies.”
“The lecturers are actually the ones who left copies at the shopping centre or the bookshop for us to pick and pay!”
There are hundreds of photocopy dens in and around campuses, which openly advertise copies of copyrighted content. If the universities want to clamp down on this practice, they just have to walk around their precincts. They could also negotiate with publishers for a better price for bulk purchases. That, is if they want to.
And it is sad to know that students at high school level use original editions of books, while those in universities — centres of educational excellence — take the presumably easy way out right under the administration’s view.
3. The country culture — Let’s face it. We are in a get rich quick, ‘kula nyama meza mate’ society, where the end justifies the means. We don’t flinch when buying pirated films and movie series. We have an education system that glorifies passing of exams rather than knowledge acquisition.
This young reader sums it up well: “I see people who have completed four years of literature, read lots of books, but they never bought any.”
I have started with Kenyatta University because it is my home, and a stab by your own mother hurts more than most, but I am aware that piracy is rampant in and around many universities and will be heading there soon.
It is my hope that my action to return this prized award will open dialogue on this matter. It is my call to action for authors, publishers, universities, book sellers, book lovers and students to eradicate this vice.
Or else, we shall not have writers. And we shall not have a country.