Intellectual corruption

February 13, 2011


UNDER the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876, every public performance in the country is required to pass a censor. Over the decades various governments have used the law to serve purposes that range from stifling dissent to disseminating propaganda to simply controlling the flow of ideas and information.

The legislation was formulated by the British in the wake of the events of 1857, a mutiny or a war of independence depending on who is doing the telling. The purpose was to control avenues of possible dissent such as anti-Raj theatre, and to control public performances that could cause communal, ethnic or other sorts of unrest.

Thereafter, Pakistani governments have used the law to various ends, most infamously Gen Ziaul Haq who used it to try and stamp out the ‘resistance’ theatre that was developed in opposition to his regime.

Other governments have applied the law to prevent what various censor boards have seen as ‘obscenity’ and ‘vulgarity’, those two great obsessions of Pakistan. To them, it was besides the point perhaps that amongst the acts denied permission to be staged were modern and classical dance performances of international calibre.

In the years that I have known people associated with theatre, scripts or plays have been censored because the censor board considered certain lines to be making light of the army or the government; because it considered some words — words! — vulgar; or because the content was deemed ‘unsuitable’ for a Pakistani audience. The Dramatic Performances Act is applied in all sorts of situations, as a means to all sorts of ends.

How ironic, then, that the one place it does not seem to be applied is to enforce the law. In some key areas, it seems to be a free-for-all.

Consider one breach of international law that takes place routinely in Pakistan’s theatre halls: that of copyright and intellectual property rights laws regarding literary and artistic works. The rights of the owners of most work in this domain are protected for a specified time period (after which it passes into the public domain and is considered ‘free’, such as the work of Shakespeare). If the work is to be reproduced or redone in any way by someone other than the holder of the copyright, formal permission has to be sought and usually a fee has to be paid.

A theatre company I was associated with once applied for permission to stage a Terry Pratchett play in Lahore. We were sent a legal agreement that asked whether we intended to translate or adapt the script in any way, detailed how far we could take liberties with it, the ‘rules’ to which we must adhere while using the author and play’s name for publicity or other purposes, and so on. We never got beyond this stage because the fee was prohibitive for our amateur theatre company.

And that is precisely the point, because we regularly see plays being staged where the copyright holder has not been informed, much less asked for permission and paid, for the use of their work. In most such cases, producers are earning from the big-budget productions — ticket prices are usually high. Why aren’t the owners of the work being paid?

Pakistan is already on the world’s blacklist in terms of music and video piracy. To that we must add theatre. While the state has made some efforts to clamp down on piracy of the former sort (to little avail, as evidenced by the hundred-rupee CDs and DVDs you can buy everywhere) we must ask why the laws covering dramatic performances are not enforced or expanded to ensure that copyright and intellectual property right violations do not take place. The censor board gives each play permission to be staged, after all, so every production goes through the radar of the state.

Additionally, the website of the government’s International Property Organisation tells me that as a signatory to the trade-related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (Trips) under the WTO, “Pakistan required upgradation of its intellectual property infrastructure in tandem with global trends. Accordingly, the existing legislation on intellectual property, i.e. copyrights, patents and trademarks has been upgraded and the revised laws have been promulgated.”

Would this apply to theatre productions as well? The section on copyrights details that literary and artistic works are protected, including writing and music. The copyright owner has the “exclusive right” to authorise others to, among other things, “perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works”.

According to the website, copyrightable works include (among other categories) “literary works, musical works, including any accompanying words, and dramatic works, including any accompanying music”.

Decrying corruption has become a national pastime, but we tend to forget that corruption goes beyond cash transactions. In the domain of ethical and intellectual corruption, few would find their hands unstained. From stealing the work that belongs to others — that is what the production of copyrighted work without permission amounts to — or jockeying yourself in front of the line while renewing your ID card or at an airline counter, most of us are guilty. That it is of the humdrum, everyday type makes it all the more destructive and pervasive.

Pakistan is not lawless because of the lack of laws. It is lawless because on the one hand, the will to enforce the laws is lacking; and on the other hand — more importantly — most people are happy to break the law if the likelihood is that they will get away with it. Those of us who call themselves law-abiding are so because we’re afraid of the consequences, not because we’re willing to resist temptation.

The writer is a member of staff.