Copyright in Egypt

Copyright is a fraught issue regionally (copyright has been a focus at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, for instance). But it’s perhaps been most at the fore in Egypt, where the publishing industry has — particularly in the last year — upped its game against copyright “pirates” of all shapes and sizes. I wrote about this very important battleground for the print edition of the Egypt Independentnow online:

I shamelessly stole this image from Is that bad?

Copyright, as first envisioned, was a way to balance the rights of authors with the rights of their audiences. The public has a right to read both creative and academic works, and authors have a right to control aspects of their work and, perhaps, to earn a living.

But as others populated the space between author and reader, this relationship grew more complex. Publishers and other middlemen often took over managing authors’ rights. More books were well-produced, well-edited and attractive, but they were also priced out of the reach of many ordinary consumers. A parallel economy of illegal books sprang up, and powerful global coalitions were formed to stop them.

This has become a particularly thorny battle in Egypt, where public libraries are chronically understocked and in very short supply. In most cases, those who want to read a book must try to buy, borrow or copy it. Struggles have thus ensued between legal and “illegal” publishers.

Illegal copying is nothing new: It’s been a part of the Egyptian landscape ever since distinctions were made between legal and illegal book copying. But in the last year, with a combination of economic difficulties and the ease of digital copying, the issue has come more forcefully to Egyptian publishers’ doorsteps.

In recent months, the Egyptian Publishers Association has been working hard to promote its vision of copyright. During a two-day event that it called “Book Piracy and Author Copyright,” the association kicked off a high-profile attack on illegal book copying. Less than a week later, it announced that 18,900 illegal books had been seized.

The informal copying of books, as with other informal economic sectors, has grown rapidly in the last year. Photocopies of books can be found anywhere from universities to metro cars. For readers and authors, this has both ups and downs: For readers, it means flimsier products but better prices. For authors, it means smaller revenues but larger audiences.

For “legal” publishers, meanwhile, this has appeared to be a lose-lose situation. Their response has been to ask the government to clamp down on illegally copied books and on those who publish them.

However, Nagla Rizk, author of “Access to Knowledge in Egypt,” is urging publishers, authors and audiences to see things from a different angle.

“It is a waste of resources to continue to deal with [copyright infringement] from a policing perspective,” Rizk, who also heads the Access to Knowledge for Development Centre at the American University in Cairo, says.

The publishers’ association wants to convince the public that, for the good of writers and readers, illegal copying should not be tolerated. Association head Mohamed Rashad has called for greater penalties for copiers. Mohamed Salmawy, head of the Egyptian writers’ union, says the state needs to undertake raids on locations known to sell illegal books.

Rizk, on the other hand, says these efforts are a waste of both time and money.

“These resources would be better exercised in finding creative ways of remunerating the authors,” she says. Go on; keep reading.