If you were lucky enough to make it to the 20th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) that concluded early this week, you surely found the event's organisation and turnout impressive. ADIBF played host to well over 800 book publishers from 63 countries, attracted thousands of visitors, and featured highly-stimulating cultural and intellectual gatherings. There was more to this year's event than its excellent management. Convening the copyright-themed International Publishers Association symposium in Abu Dhabi just ahead of ADIBF and banning copyright violators from the event was well-timed to give a boost the region's faltering book publishing industry. It is true that book publishing is hampered by wide-ranging political, professional, financial, and cultural problems but without steadfast enforcement of copyright and intellectual property law, the future of this sector will be just as bleak.
In this part of the world, intellectual property and copyright regulations are new to the legal and regulatory landscape. With sustained prodding from global powers like the United States and the European Union, and from some regional organisations like the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance, antipiracy regulations have been instituted in different countries, albeit with uneven enforcement. Though such laws cover a variety of content such as television programmes, films, and computer software, pirated books remain a huge problem. According to the International Intellectual Property Alliance, book piracy in the Middle East in 2008 contributed to financial losses amounting to $32 million in Egypt and $10 million in Saudi Arabia.
As noted by one commentator on this issue, book piracy normally takes the form of copying full manuscripts and marketing them in bookshops as originals. It is difficult to account for the real extent of the damage these illegal practices do every year to the industry. Travelling outside the UAE, I came across copies of my authored textbook for sale at one bookshop and could absolutely do nothing about it. When I asked about not displaying original items the bookshop keeper replied: "There is no credible book distribution system to ensure a smooth flow of requested originals." Besides, "copies are cheaper than originals because consumers, in this case, students, are not willing to pay big money for textbooks", he explained.
Book piracy is damaging for the publishing industry simply because of its demoralising effect on all parties involved in the production circle. Authors are hesitant about investing their talent and time in something they would not be rewarded for; publishers and distributors are also discouraged by the prospect of putting their money into something with no guaranteed return. When it comes to consumers, who are the most significant drivers of behaviour in this circle, there is always a sense of comfort at having something cheap. This problem is at its worst in web-based books where users may apply hacking techniques to download copyrighted materials for free. The challenge of book piracy may lie more with consumers than with producers. But by creating adequate awareness about the moral and legal implications of reading something that an author has not been paid for, I believe copyright and intellectual property laws would be easier to enforce.
While enforcing copyright laws in publishing seems more challenging than in other sectors where creative content is a commodity, there are encouraging prospects for it in the UAE. With a clean record of copyright and intellectual property laws, the UAE has won recognition in this field from other countries and international organisations. A simple Google search for piracy controls in publishing shows that the UAE is at the forefront of the fight against violators. Last November, the UAE Ministry of Economy, Dubai Police, and Sharjah Police, in collaboration with the Arabian Anti-Piracy Alliance, successfully completed raids against book piracy in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
Book fairs like ADIBF and similar events across the region have been instrumental in making the region aware about the importance of copyright law enforcement to building up a publishing industry in the Arab World. Yet, to sustain this enthusiasm throughout the year, more must be done. States should go beyond passing copyright protection laws: they also need to show us that those laws are also enforceable. And for consumers, it may not be enough just to be aware of how unethical book piracy is; they must also understand that building a knowledge economy is impossible if knowledge is not protected and valued.
Muhammad Ayish is professor of communications at the University of Sharjah