Pirates wreak havoc in Kenya's book industry

Saturday April 4 2009


January of every year is a good time for most publishers in Kenya. This is the time when pupils are going back to school and publishers anticipate a financial windfall from the sale of textbooks.

Unknown to publishers, unscrupulous traders are also waiting on the sidelines, ready to cash in from where they never sowed. And Oxford University Press (OUP) is currently on the receiving end.

They are now staring at a loss of about Sh20 million after unknown persons flooded the market with counterfeit copies of the Advanced Learners’ Dictionary.

The matter has been complicated by the fact that the pirates have been colluding with equally crooked booksellers to offload the dictionary on unsuspecting teachers, parents and students.

“After we were made aware of the disturbing situation, we immediately sent officers to the field to assess the extent of the problem,” says Mr James Ogolla, the business and development manager at OUP

From the information they received, it became clear that pirates had brought in huge consignments of the counterfeit dictionary, and that it had been distributed to most parts of the country. “They obviously had timed their operation to coincide with the admission of Form One students in February,” says Mr Ogolla.

To prevent a further dent on their profits, OUP bought space in the local newspapers warning of dire action against persons caught with the offending dictionary. Those with the dictionary were given 48 hours to return it to their selling point.

“After we placed the adverts, we received overwhelming responses from unsuspecting persons who had already bought the dictionary,” says Mr Ogolla. “It is then that we realised that the problem was bigger than we had anticipated.”

He said that the people were very cooperative. “We even had school heads who asked pupils who had bought the dictionary to surrender it,” he says.

Clearly the pirates had an edge over OUP. While OUP’s dictionary is retailing at Sh950, the counterfeit one was going for between Sh500 and Sh700. Booksellers had been roped in with huge discounts.

Mr Kithusi Mulonzya, OUP’s publishing manager, says that even before the matter came out in the open, they had noticed that the dictionaries were not moving as expected. “This was strange as our warehouse was full and booksellers were not ordering,” says Mr Mulonzya.

This case brings to the surface a problem that has plagued the local publishing industry for a long time. Most publishers prefer to deal with the problem out of the public limelight.

Mrs Nancy Karimi, who is the chairperson of the Kenya Publishers’ Association (KPA), says that piracy continues to be a nightmare for publishers. “Counterfeiting mainly involves fast-moving products like set books,” she explains.

She points an accusing finger at booksellers. “Booksellers are giving pirates a market,” she says. “Pirates offer booksellers very high discounts of up to 50 per cent.”

Stories abound in publishing circles about how booksellers have formed cartels which ride roughshod over publishers, demanding unrealistic discounts. And, in most cases, publishers cave in to the demands.

Failure to comply with the booksellers’ demands often comes with a heavy price. Some of the rogue booksellers conspire to lock ‘‘uncooperative’’ publishers from their regions.

Under the Free Primary and Secondary Education, schools can only buy books from booksellers. Publishers cannot transact with schools directly. Thus if pirated books are to find their way into schools, then it means that they got them from booksellers.

Mrs Karimi says that there needs to be rules to tame rogue booksellers. And one of the ways of instilling discipline in this chaotic sector, she says, is through the introduction of a code of conduct to be signed by booksellers.

“We are also pushing the ministry of Education to come up with an approved list of booksellers who should deal with government funded books,” she explains, adding that the same happens in Uganda and Tanzania.

“If a bookseller is found to have gone against the laid-down rules, then they are struck off the list,” says Mrs Karimi.

On his part, Mr John Mbugua, the chairperson of Booksellers Association of Kenya, says introduction of a code of conduct is essential if the body is to retain its integrity. “We are in the process of forming disciplinary committees in all our branches which will deal with errant members,” he said.

“All booksellers are being registered afresh,” he said. “We are coming up with a list of bona fide members, a copy of which will be presented to the District Education Officer, the Provincial Director of Education and the Education Permanent Secretary.”

He says that if a member is found to have engaged in unlawful practices like dealing with pirated books, they will be deregistered, which means loss of business.

“We know one another and it is easy to know when one is engaging in unlawful practice,” he says.

And if their efforts in streamlining the sector go according to plan, then it is new entrants into the book selling business who will find themselves on the losing end as it will take them three years before they can transact in books that are funded by the government.

However, Mrs Karimi does not think it is fair to subject new investors in the market to such punitive measures. “I don’t see how this is going to fight piracy,” she says. “It amounts to forming cartels which lock other people out of business. At the end of the day, fighting piracy is a matter of ethics.’’

As for OUP, Mr Ogolla told the Lifestyle that they have been working closely with CID officers. He could not divulge much information as to the progress of the matter.

OUP might have made considerable efforts in the fight against the pirating of their dictionary, but it remains to be seen whether they will secure a conviction when the case reaches the courts.

Even then, such cases take quite long before they are finally determined. A case in point involves Macmillan Kenya publishers whose piracy case took 13 years to be decided. “We only got judgment in October last year,” says Mr David Muita, the managing director.

Cases of piracy involving books have been marred by poor investigations and prosecutions. Though the Copyright Board is mandated with investigating and prosecuting cases of piracy, it is not well equipped to deal with cases that occur outside Nairobi.

Most publishers affected by piracy talk of frustration when dealing with police officers who do not appreciate matters involving infringement of copyright.

Mrs Karimi says that there is a high level of ignorance by police officers when it comes to dealing with matters of intellectual property rights.

“Most of these officers cannot tell the difference between an original and pirated book,” she says. “They do not understand why a publisher should be complaining, when their book is selling.”

While appreciating that the Copyright Board is faced with shortcomings, Mr Edward Sigei, a State counsel seconded to the board, says efforts are being made to address the situation. Currently, 10 police officers have been seconded to the Copyright Board.