When faced with the exploitative economics and technology of British rule, Mohandas Gandhi found innovative answers. Responding to the dumping of overpriced mill cloth from England, he resorted to khadi. The charkha was a lot more than image-making gimmickery: Gandhi had renegotiated the terms of technology and economics.
His approach to intellectual property was no different. His 1909 masterpiece Hind Swaraj was free of copyright. “I have never yet copyrighted any of my writings. Tempting offers have come to me…even so, I dare not be exclusive… Writings in the journals which I have the privilege of editing must be common property. Copyright is not a natural thing. It is a modern institution, perhaps desirable to a certain extent,” he wrote in March 1926. “I have not the heart to copyright my articles,” he iterated in June 1940.
Four years later, he changed tack, bequeathing all rights over his writings to the Navjivan Trust. “It was after much thought that I declared a trust in connection with my writings. I had observed misuse of Tolstoy’s writings for want of a trust. By curing the defect, I preserved fully the idea lying behind dislike for copyright, i.e., for personal gain for one’s writings. The idea also was to prevent profiteering by publishers or distortion or misrepresentation, wilful or unintentional.”
Gandhi engaged with the copyright law to subvert the economics he disagreed with, and to infuse it with values close to his heart, wrote a US law professor in a 2013 paper titled ‘Gandhi and Copyright Pragmatism’. “Toward the later part of his life, he also came to deploy copyright law to curtail market-based exploitation when he could. In many ways then, Gandhi’s approach did with copyright law what open source licensing and the Creative Commons Project would begin doing with copyright in the 21st century,” wrote Shyamkrishna Balganesh of University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Now, consider the life and work of Richard M Stallman (callsign RMS in the geek-verse). A champion of the movement for Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), he is more commonly known as the pioneer of ‘Copyleft’. “If you want to accomplish something in the world,” says his Wikiquote page, “idealism is not enough — you need to choose a method that works to achieve the goal. In other words, you need to be pragmatic.” RMS was among the first to call for a free online encyclopaedia. Wikipedia, no surprise, is governed by Creative Commons licensing.
Many software giants do not give their customers any control over their source codes, asserting proprietary ownership. Stallman compares this to car owners not being able to open up their engines. Yet, such companies have used Gandhi in their ads. Remember Apple’s ‘Think Different’ ad?
Gandhi and Stallman is a ready comparison. Two public-spirited individuals, original and subversive. Freaks in their own ways, as pioneers tend to be. Both used radical rethinking to find practical responses to what they opposed. The open-source software movement, says Stallman, has much in common with Gandhi.
So is this movement a fringe concern in the digital world? Far from it. In May 2015, the government of India released its e-governance policy; it had a heavy slant towards open source software, even if the government machinery is very slow to actually adopt this policy. In today’s world, software isn’t just a matter of choosing an OS platform for your phone. It spreads from day-to-day government work and data management to matters of national security.
While the government has taken a step forward, social organizations fare poorly. India’s small but enthusiastic FOSS community lacks a sense of its cultural heritage, including the values of our freedom movement. Gandhian institutions, too, remain inert to possibilities of wider social cooperation. So, even as calls for engaging young people with Gandhian values has become a trope, there is no collaboration on the new frontiers of technology and economics. No renegotiation of terms, no pragmatism. Call it a cultural version of the digital divide. This is one reason for the dismal state of Indian language computing.
There will be renewed interest in Gandhi in the build-up to 2019, his 150th anniversary year. One part of this will be the tiresome discussions on “how relevant is Gandhi to our times?”, a Gandhi Jayanti ritual now. To find answers, we needn’t look further than our digital devices, actually. If we stop for a moment and take a hard look at the economics and politics of technology, the relevance is all around. How serious an enquirer are you?