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SpicyIP Interview Series – Carl Malamud on Gandhi, Satyagraha and Open Access in India


Carl Malamud speaking at the UC Berkeley iSchool about “(Re-)defining the public domain”, October 17, 2007. Via Wikipedia

On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s 149th birth anniversary, we at SpicyIP celebrate by bringing you a conversation with Mr. Carl Malamud – pioneering web archivist, open access advocate, the founder of PublicResource.org and a satyagrahi on a mission to free knowledge from the restraints imposed by archaic laws, institutions and values.

Mr. Malamud has been at the forefront of the fight for better access to public knowledge – having taken on (and won against) various US Government agencies like the Securities Exchange Commission as well as private associations like the American Society for Testing and Materials, to make public laws accessible to the very people they seek to govern. He’s been called a ‘rogue archivist’ and ‘the internet’s own instigator’, but prefers to think of himself as a Gandhian and a Satyagrahi. Having now taken the Bureau of Indian Standards to court to make gazetted standards open, Mr. Malamud is geared up for a much bigger task – opening up scientific knowledge for students in India.

In this interview, we discuss his efforts in India, the fight to make scientific knowledge accessible to all, and what connects open standards and Mahatma Gandhi.

What prompted you to make India a hub of your activities as an open access advocate?

I explain my thinking in the book “Code Swaraj.” After Sam Pitroda and I started working on the issue of standards, I made some trips to India with Sam and began digging deeper and deeper. For one thing, since I was making a legal case for public access on standards, I felt I should learn more about Indian law and I did a lot of reading. And, because I was interested in the broader question of how one questions authority, I read a lot about the history of the fight for independence in India as well as Gandhiji’s efforts in South Africa. And, after traveling with Sam, I started working on a number of other collections.

As I discuss in the book, this continuing interest in India also came with a growing conviction that if there is going to be a serious push for universal access to knowledge, India is the right place to start.

Do you think the US has a good model for access to knowledge that can be emulated in India?

I don’t believe the U.S. model is a good one and the TRIPS agreement has imposed that model on India under the guise of fair trade. What has happened in the U.S. and Europe is that knowledge has been commodified and corporatized. Prices have gone up dramatically. Pricing for access to journals is secret and abusive through the use of “packages” that libraries are forced to purchase. Those “packages” have some essential journals, some that perhaps people don’t care about, and many that are missing.

It seems absurd that, with the existence of the internet, the law still focuses on increasing copyright protections (for example, the TRIPS+ treaties which endorse DRM or the proposed EU Copyright Directive that endorses increased intermediary liability), and that students and researchers have to use services like sci-hub. Is there a need to completely rehaul national and international systems for copyright in the digital age? Politically, is this even a possibility, or are these systems too captured by private interests?

Yes. Particularly with scholarly information, the system must change. Barring access to students for the materials they need to further their education is a moral crime. Scientific knowledge is an essential facility and abusive monopoly power has resulted in bottlenecks that deny access to the corpus in order to extract monopoly rents. This is wrong.

I believe one possibility, under existing law, is much more aggressive use of the teaching exemption, which is enshrined internationally in the Berne Convention and nationally in the Copyright Act. Indian Universities should be able to work together to make a much larger corpus of scholarly information more readily available.

A major challenge to public access to information in India is that the Government claims copyright over government works, from databases to school textbooks. Do you think the government should ever claim copyright over what are, essentially, publicly funded works? Are there alternative systems around this?

Well, on the one hand there are assertions of copyright. On the other hand, there is the Right to Information, which is deeply rooted in not only legislation but the Constitution. I think the fact that these works are created with public funds, are meant for public distribution, and that I’m doing so on a strictly non-commercial basis makes collections such as the Hind Swaraj collection a perfectly fair use.

There’s quite an aura of civil disobedience around you. You’ve taken major personal risks to stand up for the cause of access to information and knowledge, and you continue to do so. What inspires this?

I disagree. I’m not disobedient, I actually push hard for proper adherence to the law. I do take personal risks, but that is only after I’ve studied the matter deeply and believe that the database or works that I’m posting are meant to be public and that the law supports my actions.

You could say Gandhiji was disobedient when he made salt, or you could say he was simply reinforcing the point that salt is a basic human need and you cannot deny people access to salt in a democratic society.

What is Gandhi’s relationship with the open access movement? Would you describe yourself as a Gandhian?  

I would definitely describe myself as a Gandhian, in the sense of being a student of Gandhiji and trying to learn from his many examples. I also think the Mahatma would have been a strong supporter of today’s open access movements and in particular things like open source and the use of social media to get his messages out. Remember, Gandhiji was a lawyer and a printer before he became a Mahatma and changed the world. When they opened up the Phoenix Ashram, the very first thing they did was drag the printing press into the wilderness and built a house for the printing press before they even built structures for themselves and their families. At the Phoenix Ashram, everybody was required to print: it was their bread labor.

Access to knowledge is a prominent feature of electoral politics and political agendas in many countries – take the Icelandic Pirate Party, for example. India’s People’s Movement for the RTI was also immensely successful as a political movement to secure legal change. You have been involved in many similar movements yourself. Do you have insights on political organisation along these lines? What does it take to elevate these issues to political relevancy?

There is no one easy answer to building a movement with the sole exception of a long-term focus, and a dedication to public work. Gandhiji worked for two decades in South Africa before he began to see the results of his labors. MKSS worked for decades to bring RTI into effect. If we believe access to knowledge is a human right, we must all engage in public work, we must educate ourselves, and we must inform our rulers.

You ran for the post of the office of the Public Printer of the United States in 2009. Could you please explain the role of this office and why you choose to run for it?

The Public Printer runs the Government Publishing Office which, among other things, publishes the Official Journals of the U.S. Government, including the Federal Register (equivalent to the Official Gazette of India) and the Congressional Record. GPO also publishes a huge number of fascinating books, much as the Publications Division of the Ministry of Information does in India.

It seemed like a job I was qualified to do and it fit my interests and background in printing, both books and online publication. And, because of the role in publishing the law, it seemed like I had some contributions I could make to modernizing that process in the United States. Indeed, even though I didn’t serve in office, I was a consultant to the Obama transition effort and my contribution there was to rethink how the Federal Register was published.

Do you still plan on pursuing public office, or do you prefer to be, as Wired Magazine called you, the outside ‘instigator’?

I’d be happy to serve in government! I actually consider my activities at Public Resource as an offshoot of what government should be doing but isn’t. I’d love to do the same work inside as I do outside.

I was astounded to learn that PublicResource.org is a one-man show. Why did you make this decision?

Well, I’m the only full-time employee, but we have amazing contractors, colleagues, volunteers, and a very distinguished board of directors. But, I’m the only employee.

The reason is that funding an NGO is always difficult and I didn’t want to take all our money from foundations and spend it all on personnel, then have to fire people during the dry spells. By being the only employee, I’ve been able to keep the operation going since 2007. When we do have dry spells, I put myself on furlough until we have money again. You can’t really do that with people who work for you, so I’ve resisted the temptation to add more staff when we do have cash. Besides, with contractors, I get to work with of the very best people in the world, folks I could never possibly afford to hire. The same goes for our legal help: all our law firms work pro bono and there is no way I could possibly afford the kinds of folks who have signed up to represent us.

PILs are fairly novel to the Indian judicial system, and are supposed to be less adversarial than the regular court process. What’s your experience of the legal system here been? Have courts here lent a more sympathetic ear here than elsewhere?

It has been a pleasure working with our Indian law firms: Nisith Desai and Associates and the Chambers of Salman Khurshid, both of whom are representing this suit on a Pro Bono basis. The courts have been equally interesting to observe and to learn about procedures. The PIL case in India has actually progressed quicker than similar actions in the United States.

You’re a prominent archivist. Digital archiving, particularly, is crucial in preserving history, culture and knowledge. Many personal efforts of archiving have had spectacular results (the public library of India, for example). Then again, there is a level of circumspection involved – to not reveal personal or sensitive data, for example. Should individuals and institutions (librarians, museums) take up archiving at a personal level? Any lessons on how to encourage better archiving in India?

We must be aware of the privacy implications of anything we post on-line, be it be a few individual documents or millions of books or court records. Collections such as the Public Library of India have few privacy implications, but there are of course some. We must also be aware of the “mosaic” effect. If you have some anonymized information in one source and some anonymized information in another source, sometimes when they both become visible on the net, they can be put together and linked to individuals. We must also be aware that those that came before us perhaps did not think of privacy implications. So, if you are putting court records online, you must be particularly aware of those issues. The core lesson is that privacy protection, like security, is a continuous process, not a one-time event. We must remain continually vigilant and make these values part of the process of archiving and publication.

Finally, I’ve seen some mouthwatering recipes on your Twitter feed. Any favorite dishes from the sub-continent? What else do you enjoy doing while traveling in India?

I love all the food from the sub-continent. Seriously! Amazing diversity of flavors and foods, I can’t get enough of it. My trips to India have been incredibly hectic, so I haven’t done a lot of sightseeing, but I love tagging along with Sam Pitroda and getting to visit the Sabarmati Ashram and the Bangalore Palace and places like that. My hobby while in India when I do have free time (and I’m not eating!) is to go visit government bookstores looking for material I can purchase and scan.

To learn more about PublicResource and Mr. Malamud’s work, please see http://public.resource.org/ or follow him on twitter @carlmalamud.

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