Early last year, two well-known international publishing companies and probably a few years ago a professor working at the World Trade Institute in Geneva sent me specimen copies of several textbooks on intellectual property law to my Dhaka University address from the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland. The publishers shipped the books consigning with two popular international courier companies and the professor sent her own book by the ordinary postal mail. Before the books arrived, they sent me emails attaching the invoices for parcels. Accordingly, I kept eagerly waiting to receive the books.
Finding no calls after several weeks, I contacted the Bangladesh Post several times by email but still today I could not find the book sent by post. However, within a week of receiving the publishing house's email, I got a call from a courier company, and they informed me that I have to show my national identity card and pay the customs duty at the Bangladesh Customs to take delivery of the books. Then I contacted the Bangladesh Customs through my representative, and they informed me that the customs duty requires to be paid according to the price or weight of the book. It was found that even though the price was not written on the invoice, the amount of customs duty charged thereon was more than the price of the book displayed on the Amazon website. Subsequently, I phoned a couple of customs officials I knew, to enquire about the matter, but to no avail. I then informed the publishing company that it would not be possible for me to accept the books after paying the local customs duty.
The publishing company was very surprised to learn that the customs duty required to be paid for the complimentary copy of the textbook sent to the teacher. They told me that they could not have imagined this would happen anywhere in the world. In fact, in all countries of the world, publishing companies or authors send courtesy copies of their published books to course teachers for the purpose of increasing sales, and the teachers recommend the books to the students based on the merit. In a country like ours, these gracious books are very much needed by teachers like us who are involved in higher education; because it is almost impossible for many of us to buy a book of the kind by saving money from our salary which is often poor even compared to that of our neighbouring countries.
With all this, fifty years after the independence, Bangladesh has not yet reached the right place in higher education. When the news of the backwardness of domestic higher education institutions comes out in the rankings of various ranking institutions of the world, the issue of higher education is discussed for a while, but it goes out of the discussion again. To reach the right place in higher education by delivering quality education, qualified teachers, eligible students, and quality infrastructure such as modern libraries and a variety of learning materials are badly needed. However, libraries are often unable to subscribe to the latest editions of online or offline books, journals, periodicals, reports, and various subject-based databases due to lack of adequate budget allocation for education. Further, although students and teachers were somewhat involved in online education during the Covid-19 pandemic period, the country's education system is still largely dependent on offline books, journals, periodicals, and reports. Most of them are even now written in foreign languages i.e., particularly in English and they are all imported.
Such books, journals, periodicals, and reports published abroad are usually sold at high prices since they are produced with the help of costly foreign labour, intellectual property and investment. In order to import these educational items, the domestic importers have to pay a lot of expenses including transportation cost, import duty, various port charges, clearing and forwarding (C&F) agent charges, Letter of Credit (LC) charges and so on. There are also calculations of their profits and variations in the exchange rate. Combined with these charges, a foreign book costs us a lot in the country. For example, an imported Indian book with a price tag of Rs.100 is often sold in the retail book market of Nilkhet at the local currency of Tk.180-190. As a result, most of the students in this country who often come from lower middle-class families cannot afford to buy and read these expensive books. Libraries also cannot collect many of these books due to their limited budget. As a result, both students and teachers do not get good books. Once again, if one or two such books are found, they can randomly be photocopied and sold at affordable prices. Sometimes they are seen to be printed in this country without the permission of the publisher, author or rights holder and the copied books are sold at or near the original price.
The copyright related intellectual property law, also known as the Copyright Act 2000 in Bangladesh, provides that books, journals, periodicals, and reports published abroad will automatically be subject to conditional protection in Bangladesh. The conditions include that the publisher, author or rights holder of books, journals, periodicals, and reports are closely associated with a member state of the Bern Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works 1886 and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights 1994 (TRIPS) and that country protects books, journals, periodicals, and reports published in Bangladesh.
This shows that books, journals, periodicals, and reports published abroad which are being printed or photocopied without the permission of the publisher, author or rights holder in Bangladesh and sold at cheap prices everywhere are qualified to be protected without registration in this country. In India, however, copying of such education materials has been included within the ambit of 'teacher's course packs' by the order of the Supreme Court to fit in the exception of copyright protection. However, there is considerable debate as to whether the cover-to-cover print or photocopy of books is an exception. Hence, since no such order has been issued by the Supreme Court in our country, such local use of books, journals, periodicals, and reports published abroad will be considered copyright piracy and punishable under the Copyright Act. Besides, if Bangladesh graduates to a developing country in 2026, the country will have to fully comply with the TRIPS Agreement. In this case, printing or photocopying without the permission of the publisher, author or rights holder must be punished under the copyright law; otherwise, Bangladesh may face the World Trade Organisation's Dispute Settlement Body. Therefore, Bangladesh can revoke the customs duty imposed on imported books, among many other steps to prevent copyright piracy, make the supply of foreign books available in the country at nominal prices, and improve the quality of higher education.
Dr Mohammad Towhidul Islam is a Professor of Law, University of Dhaka. [email protected]