By K Raveendran
On the face of it, Twitter blocking the accounts of Ravi Shankar Prasad, who as IT minister apparently considers himself to be the be-all and end-all of social media and the freedom of expression, and Shashi Tharoor, chairman of parliament’s standing committee on IT, would appear as poetic justice at work. Both have been at loggerheads with the microblogging giant, of course, for different reasons as they stand at the opposite of ends of political spectrum. But both have been in agreement over the need for social media platforms to play ball.
Ravi Shankar Prasad’s IT ministry has had a running feud with the social media platforms over compliance with the new IT rules and has served ultimatums for strict observance. Similarly, members of Shashi Tharoor’s parliamentary panel have grilled Twitter over the new rules and have told the social media platform that it is the law of the land, and not the company policy, that takes precedence as long as it operates in India.
The Twitter action definitely smacks of vengeance. So, when Prasad took to the blogging platform to announce the denial of access to him for one hour for alleged ‘copyright violation’, Shashi Tharoor followed suit, sharing his own experience of high-handedness by the US giant, resulting in the same outcome, attributed to the US copyright law. The objection to Prasad’s post was his reference to A R Rahman’s Vande Mataram song while Shashi Tharoor was found violating copyright for his inclusion of the video of BoneyM song Rasputin. The parliamentary panel has decided to seek Twitter’s explanation for the arbitrary action.
Even if one were to accept the Twitter argument on its face value, its action would appear to be questionable. Twitter says the blocking of access was by way of warning. But its interpretation of the copyright law to take down the posts is too officious. Copyright laws are meant to protect the commercial interests of the copyright holder and there is nothing that can show that the posts by Ravi Shankar Prasad and Shashi Tharoor were meant to commercially exploit the respective contents.
Songs like Vande Mataram and Rasputin have become part of cultural expression and their citation for conveying an idea or an emotion can in no way deemed as commercial exploitation. The argument that this violates the rights of their creators or owners simply fails to stand scrutiny.
Sony Entertainment, or any company that invests in the creation of such work of art, does so on the belief and confidence that the work is capable of creating fan following. It is the potential popularity of a song, for instance, that justifies the investment and anything that does not lead to such fan following is a wasted investment. So, even in the commercial sense, a song justifies the investment when it hits the popularity charts and is sung by the fans, whether in the bathroom or any other private space. Any interpretation of the copyright law so as to discourage such spontaneous response amounts to the very negation of the idea behind the copyright law. This is what, unfortunately, Twitter has done.
Shashi Tharoor said the same thing in his subsequent tweets. Tharoor noted how it is considered fair use when Indians creatively make videos using short snippets of foreign music. He pointed out that the copyright holders must in fact be happy that the clip is enhancing the popularity of the song, rather than infringing their right, although he did not question the action by Twitter of taking down the post in question as it was forced by the complaint received by the UK-based International Federation of Phonographic Industry for the alleged violation of the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of the US. But he did not hide his displeasure over the ‘hyperactive’ response by Twitter in locking down the account.
There could be more such occasions when the adherence to a foreign law would be in conflict with the relevant Indian laws and this poses a serious challenge to social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp operating in India. When in India, the thumb rule must be the Indian laws first. With India coming out its own IT rules as applicable to foreign players, some of which may turn out to be highly restrictive, this opens the way for continuing skirmish between the social media giants and the Indian authorities. (IPA Service)