Probably it’s not a good idea to look a gift horse in the mouth. But the questions to raise over Google’s offer to Mysore University to digitise 800,000 texts stored at the Oriental Research Institute (ORI), including Kautilya‘s Artha Shastra, for free are obvious:
a) Is a University of the vintage of Mysore’s without the money, manpower or technology of doing it itself?
b) Had any Indian company come forward to do digitise the texts before and if so, what was the Mysore University’s stand?
c) Have the University’s key decision-making bodies been involved or is it a personal decision of a few to hand over the texts to Google?
d) Can Google, which has had problems with newspapers and book publishers, and television companies, over intellectual property rights be trusted at face value?
However, most of our tech-drunk newspapers have been far too busy with the gungo-ho announcement of Vice-Chancellor J. Shashidhar Prasad to bother with the minutiae of such a tempting offer.
So much so that it takes a reader of Star of Mysore to ask the obvious in an emailed letter:
Mysore University has announced that Google has been entrusted with the task of digitising 8 lakh ancient records in the form of books and palm leaves in the Oriental Research Institute. Most of these are of historic and scientific significance and will be of immense value.
While the effort to digitise the books is welcome, there are certain reservations which need to be expressed:
a) Was there a need for the US based Google to digitise the scripts? Could it not have been entrusted to an indigenous firm?
There is a likelihood of Google commercially misusing the information and it would have been better if the information in digital form was handled by an indigenous firm under secure conditions. It may be recalled that many of India’s information treasures have been looted by the British and scripts taken away from Tanjore area containing important scientific information from Atharvana Veda are now in the hands of Germans and other Europeans.
Similar things can be expected now of the information at Mysore and Google may make important parts of the information available for commercial exploitation against the interest of our country.
b) Protection of IPR: It has been reported in press that the University has stated that “….before publishing of the scriptures, the University would be taking Patents where possible…”
We may however remember that the scriptures may only reveal certain previously known traditional knowledge and are not themselves subject to Patents or copyright. However, the ingenuity of some in US who have got patents on Yoga make one believe that the knowledge to be released to the global market may come back to haunt us in the form of restrictive patents.
It is also feared that Google may try technical and non technical measures to exercise exclusive control on the “Digitised Version” of the scripts and appropriate measures have to be built into the contract to prevent hijacking of rights.
We therefore urge the Mysore University to take a fresh look at its contract with Google and ensure that traditional knowledge is not lost due to mismanagement of security of the scripts.
The release of the information for the digitisation process should be covered by a “Techno Legal Security Blanket”. Preferably the University has to form a Committee of Information Security Experts to ensure that Google does not create exclusive rights for itself on the material.