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    South Asia
     Jul 24, 2007
Harry Potter and India's curse
By Raja M

MUMBAI - More than 2 million copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows were pre-ordered worldwide, including 240,000 from India. Those, anyway, were the legitimate books. India's booksellers are not rejoicing about the anticipated Potter bonanza. They worry that their profits will be drained away by pirated copies.

"Whatever one does, we can expect to see pirated copies of Harry Potter selling tomorrow on the streets," Kaya Natarajan, manager

of Landmark in Chennai, one of India's biggest bookstores, glumly informed Asia Times Online.

His customers had been lining up since midnight for the pre-dawn opening sales of J K Rowling's much-awaited book, but less scrupulous Potter fans can own a pirated version, complete with similar fonts and book binding, at one-third of the price of the original.

Much had been done by the Potter publishers, just short of calling in the navy and air force, with the unprecedented levels of protective fuss including setting up a 24-hour anti-piracy hotline (0981-801-0044), armed guards, all-night vigils, and armored convoys worldwide shipping the book from airports to stores.

The book trade called the Deathly Hallows operation the single most complex distribution operation undertaken in Indian publishing history, with simultaneous deliveries being made to more than 300 destinations across the country.

Bloomsbury and Penguin India commissioned a team of legal experts and vigilance officials and teamed up with local police units to ensure that the Potter tome did not see the light of day before the 6:30am (Indian Standard Time) official release moment on Saturday, July 21. Penguin's representatives approached the Mumbai police commissioner for assistance to battle the book pirates.

The stakes were high. "We estimate 50% of sales lost due to piracy," Himali Sodhi, head of marketing for Penguin India, told Asia Times Online.

On the first day, sales breathlessly clocked 170,000 genuine copies at about US$23 each.

Book piracy in India ranges from sophisticated presses churning out copies hardly distinguishable from the originals to cheaper versions that carry printing ink with unsafe chemicals endangering children's health, says Akash Chittranshi, head of ACA-Law, a New Delhi-based firm representing the British Publishers Association, and now spearheading the anti-piracy drive in India.

"Some of the pirated books use such cheap paper that they turn into pulp if some water drops on to them," Chittranshi chuckled. Pirates busily churn out a best-seller range from fiction and technical books to the pseudo-spirituality paper cons.

Chittranshi said the book bootleggers are usually concentrated in the bigger cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. In Mumbai, pirated Harry Potter copies (complete with thoughtful plastic wrapping) can be found being peddled at traffic signals and outside busy public places such as Churchgate Station and D N Road. "Some cheaper versions sell for as little as Rs100 [$2.40]," Himanshu Chakrawarti, chief operations officer of Landmark Bookstore in Chennai, told Asia Times Online.

Indian copyright law is very strict, said Chittranshi. "Persons found dealing in pirated copies of Harry Potter can be arrested and and punished with imprisonment for up to three years and fine."

He said Indian law-enforcement officials have been exceptionally cooperative with defending the latest Potter edition. But the heat quickly wears off and India's limited law-enforcement resources cannot hope to sustain book pirates high on their agenda for long.

Bootleg versions of the sixth J K Rowling book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, were available in sidewalk stalls across India on the day of its release in 2005. About 2,500 pirated versions were captured in Mumbai's Haji Ali, India's epicenter for fake goods, in the first week after the official launch. On Day 2 after the hysteria-wrapped release of The Deathly Hallows, no pirated version was reported there as yet.

The book-piracy battle is a war against ghosts, with pirated versions regularly surfacing soon after a police raid. The pirate suppliers obviously don't flaunt a postal address, and the pirated retailers wage an urban-guerrilla sales war. Common knowledge is that sidewalk vendors pay hafta (bribes) to officialdom to ply their itinerant trade that vanishes when the municipal van appears to confiscate their goods and reappears when the van disappears.

"The fact is also that many people cannot afford the cover price of the originals," acknowledged Himanshu Chakrawarti of Landmark.

Himali Sodhi said: "It's a multi-faceted problem that needs long-term solutions. Not enough mind space is given to book piracy as much as even to music and movie piracy."

Intellectual-property rights have not been driven too deeply into the middle-class conscience, and as yet no anti-piracy campaign in India has tried to make the buyer feel criminally guilty about buying a pirated copy and made to realize that he or she is actually stealing legitimate dues from the author and official publisher.

India, though, isn't Asia's busiest book-piracy market, according to Akash Chitranshi. Pakistan and China are far worse. "The Chinese pirates even bring out books with best-seller titles but with fake text inside," he said.

In 2006, more than 10,000 book-piracy-related merchants were arrested in India during police raids. But unless the pirated book buyer isn't also targeted for police action, there will always be the bootleg-bookseller curse closely haunting J K Rowling and her tribe.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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