Rahul Cherian

I met Rahul Cherian a few weeks ago when my colleague V S Sunder organised a talk by him on intellectual property and disabled rights. The topic of intellectual property versus sharing of information is of great interest to me — I have used Linux since 1994, watched first the arXiv and then the open access movement undermine the power of academic publishers, and firmly believe that copyright law and other intellectual property laws exist for the public good and not for private profit (except to the extent that private profit benefits public good). This was (as Rahul noted) the original rationale for copyright law in the US, which limited copyrights to 14 years, then 28, then more and more; today’s copyright terms extend well past the expected lifetimes of authors, or indeed their children or grandchildren, and therefore provide no possible extra incentive to create work. But there is a considerable incentive for corporate “content owners” to prolong copyrights, so it gets extended every time Mickey Mouse is due to enter the public domain.

Rahul’s talk was about how this clashes with the needs of the differently abled, and in particular the visually disabled. Braille books and audiobooks are a necessity, but it is illegal to copy a textbook no matter how noble the cause, and publishers don’t tend to be proactive in doing this. Rahul spoke about the international efforts to allow copyright exemptions in such cases, India’s rather progressive laws in this regard, the opposition it faces from big media in the US and Europe (who fear any such relaxation as the first step on a slippery slope), and the hope of a new international regime that will allow volunteers or organisations in the US or Europe to convert texts to audiobooks and export them to the differently abled in India. His talk encompassed the legal, social and technological aspects in an extraordinarily authoritative manner, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not being an expert and not having taken notes, I haven’t done justice to it at all. But the website of the organisation he founded, Inclusive Planet, is a good place to start.

After the talk, Rahul reminded me that we had in fact met, years earlier as students in Bangalore (he was at NLSIU and I was at IISc). I remembered him well at that point. His lively and warm personality, and his personal connection after so many years, made an impact on me: I made a mental note to stay in touch with him and learn more about the work that they were doing.

And now he is no more — having cheated death several times, starting from a childhood surgery for a malignant spinal tumour, he was claimed by septicemia following a sudden illness while on holiday with his family in Goa.

Read Sunder’s tribute here, Lawrence Liang’s here, Jo Chopra’s here. And there are several others around the web including on Inclusive Planet’s webpage.

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