The BIS, Standards and Copyright

BISA while ago, Swaraj had posted on a petition led by Mr. Carl Malamud over at Public.Resource.Org to make the Standards published by the Bureau of Indian Standards (“BIS”) freely available to the public. The petition was supported by Mr Sam Pitroda, Dr Sushant Sinha (of the fame), Prof Dhrubajyoti Sen, Prof T.I. Eldho, Mr Srinivas Kodali, Dr Vinton G. Cerf (yes, the architect of the internet Vinton Cerf) and Swaraj. The trouble started when Mr. Carl Malamud had informed the BIS that he had taken the effort to upload about 192 documents of the Bureau online containing about 19,000 Standards, in an easily accessible format, that would greatly increase its availability. He was met with a notice from BIS stating that this was contrary to their copyright policy and the terms and conditions of the purchase of their DVDs. This post attempts to examine this claim that BIS makes. It appears that while these standards might be copyrightable, a claim for infringement is somewhat more difficult to prove. (Long post to follow)

I want to break this analysis down into two broad heads: copyrightability and infringement. Before I delve into these aspects however, there is a brief background that is to be considered. The BIS was set up by the BIS Act of 1986 for “the harmonious development of the activities of standardisation, marking and quality certification of goods and for matters connected therewith.” The BIS Standards are necessarily to be complied with in pretty much everything from buildings to everyday products like geysers and the like. This makes these Standards an integral part of all of our lives and ensures that certain minimum (if not an optimum level) of safety is maintained in our everyday lives. The importance of Standards cannot be understated. In a recent example, the air quality in India was reported to be far worse than it was portrayed to be. The inconsistencies in measurements came from the fact that we don’t have Standards to regulate these and substandard machines are often employed, allowing disastrous air quality to go unnoticed. However, as the procedure presently stands, these Standards are to be purchased from the BIS, sometimes at fairly exorbitant costs.

It is important also to note that the BIS Rules of 1987 in Rule 7(1)(b) clearly states that Standards, their revisions, amendments and cancellations shall be established by notification in the Official Gazette. However, to the best of my efforts I have not been able to locate the text of the Standards in a Gazette notification and at best have been able to find just the establishment of the Standards (which simply states that a particular Standard is applicable to certain products or industries and mentions the Standard number and so on but does not give out the Standard’s content, making it fairly useless for someone who wants to implement the Standard).

Copyrightability: These standards appear to be copyrightable on the face of it. The reason that I conclude as such is due to the line of reasoning used by the Supreme Court in EBC v. Modak, wherein the court was considering a case of both copyrightability and infringement in judgements. The strongest argument against copyrightability for judgements, laws, Standards etc., would be that it would impede access to the public, which would make it extremely difficult for them to enforce their rights or even comply with these. However, at least with regards to judgements, in EBC, the court did hold that they were not within the realm of copyright. The court seems to have avoided directly commenting on the issue of copyrightability per se, and relies instead on an analysis that focuses on the fair dealing exception (read below) and seems to imply that because infringement is not maintainable due to the fair dealing exception under S.52(1)(q)(iv), therefore judgments themselves are out of the realm of copyright. The court does state at multiple instances however that judgments are in the public domain and this would definitely imply that the copyrightability of these judgments are a near impossible claim to make. The reason that I bundle Standards, laws and judgements together is because the same rationale for non-protection operates across all of these, that the public’s need to access these is extremely critical in maintaining an orderly and organised society.

An examination of the scheme of the Act is however indicative of an argument to the contrary. S.2(k) of the Copyright Act, 1957 defines a class of works as Government works which include a work that is published under the direction and control of the Government or any department of the Government. These works are vested with a term of protection of 60 years as per S.28 with the copyright vesting in the Government as per S.17(d). Additionally, the fair dealing exception under S.52(1)(q) dealing with this kind of material would imply that there was some sort of copyright in these works that would not be infringed, solely by reason of the fair dealing exception. If there was no copyright intended in these works, then they would not have been infringed by any form of copying, which would not have required a fair dealing exception to be inserted in the Act at all. However, S.14(a)(ii) of the Copyright Act, 1957 states that copyright entitles a person to issue copies of a work to the public, not being copies in circulation. The publication of Standards in the Gazette would imply that this is already in public circulation and renders no effective right as such with the BIS.

A more definitive pronouncement of copyrightability of such material (in particular Standards) comes from the American 5th Circuit en banc ruling in Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress Int’l, Inc. In this case the court had to consider the copyrightability of private standards that were adopted into law. In holding that they were not subject to copyright protection once they became law the court stated, and this sums up quite adequately what the entire argument is,

it is hard to see how the public’s essential due process right of free access to the law (including a necessary right freely to copy and circulate all or part of a given law for various purposes), can be reconciled with the exclusivity afforded a private copyright holder . . . .”

This is the rationale that the petitioners seem to be going for and seems immensely logical to me, but as to the sole question of copyrightability, this answer does not seem to support the scheme of the Act.

Infringement: Let us assume for the sake of argument that the claim made by BIS of copyright over the Standards is a valid one. Even in such a scenario the fact situation in Mr Carl Malamud’s case falls within the ambit of the fair dealing provision of S.52(1)(q)(i) which states the reproduction or publication of any matter which has been published in any Official Gazette except an Act of a Legislature will not constitute an act of infringement of copyright. Considering however that the text of the Standard is not published in the Gazette and merely the establishment seems to be published, this might not allow a defence of fair dealing and might amount to infringement. Notice however that Rule 7(1)(a) when read with Rule 7(1)(b) clearly requires the BIS to publish the Standards in the Gazette during the process of establishment. A requirement that they don’t appear to be fulfilling. Ironically Rule 7(7)(b) states that the Standards must be available to the public, a requirement that the BIS is severely flouting by restricting access to the Standards by not publishing them in the Gazette. While they are authorised to determine the manner of their publication (Rule 7(8)), this would appear to be in addition to publication in the Gazette.

Owing to the non-commercial nature of this use and the public purpose that free and easy access would serve, it would satisfy at least two factors of the four factor test used to determine fair use (See para 24 in Chancellor Masters for a discussion on the four factor test). The only problem however would be the substantiality of the portion published and the effect on the market of the “original” copyrighted work. The former is easily explained away as partially publishing a Standard without its relevant supporting materials or in fact even other allied provisions within the Standard would serve no purpose at all to anyone and would be a futile exercise, but for limited purposes like criticism or comment, a manner of use covered under S.52(1)(a)(ii) rather than (q)(i). The latter however is where normative considerations prop up. The primary question that should be addressed is whether there should be a market at all for this kind of material in a commercial sense. Considering the nature of these works, should they not be freely available and easily accessible? If this market does not exist (as I believe it shouldn’t) then there would be no infringement. The application of this factor in the four factor test in itself is perhaps flawed in the context of Government works because a market level analysis itself is absurd, due to the nature of the works which ought not to operate or be transacted in a market system, but unfortunately this seems to be the only law on this. However considering that the BIS is selling these Standards, there does exist a market for them, which this will eat into, failing the fourth and final factor.

For those looking for easy conclusions to this entire episode, the law is perhaps not the right avenue to pursue. One can only hope that the policy is closely examined and the petition has an effect on the Ministry and the Government.

Many thanks to Swaraj for his comments on this!

P.S. A few tech societies across different law schools are currently writing statements of their own, on why they think these standards should be freely available. If anyone else would like to contribute, please write in to [email protected]

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2 thoughts on “The BIS, Standards and Copyright”

  1. Why not challenge the constitutionality of the Act? Doubt the Govt should have copyright over any works given they’re paid for by public funds.

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