Have you heard of the parody of the 1960s “Peter and Jane” readers for kids, and how Penguin UK has threatened a lawsuit unless the author and small publisher “pulp” the books?
No? Then come up to speed with this article.
The issue? Penguin UK is simply trying to protect its brand (i.e., the original books) by claiming that the author of the satire is infringing on its copyrighted content. A simple case of ownership in a capitalist economy is at stake.
Which got me to thinking…. Instead of approaching the recent Doniger affair in terms of such grand themes as free speech or academic freedom (in this case the preferred lenses for academics, of course), how might we re-imagine what’s going on if we instead understood that controversy in terms of branding?
So, what can we say about this episode if we shift the ground a bit by engaging in this little though experiment…?
For in that case, as with Peter and Jane, we have two contesting parties each trying to assert ownership over what Hinduism is (i.e., who is authorized to speak on its behalf, to decide who is or is not properly Hindu, to use its images and stories, and what images and stories deserve to see the light of day and which are best not discussed and just forgotten, I guess). How might we then approach this case where — ironically, perhaps — the same publisher (well, Penguin’s India division) was on the other end of the cease and desist order…?
Because if that’s how we approach it, then the issue is not the scholar’s unfettered right to study or say anything he or she likes about this or that item of culture (i.e., scholarly freedom) but, instead, the question is the limit of that freedom (i.e., who sets it, for what reasons, etc.), since, as with satire being generally protected from copyright infringement by what is often called fair use policy (at least here in North America, if not the UK [a draft of a law providing for such exemptions is now making its way through Parliament]), it doesn’t circumvent laws protecting ownership in all cases.
Sure, some might balk at this thought experiment since, as everyone seems to know, religion is unique, different, universal, a special case, etc., etc., and thus treating it like something that can be owned is an insult, a commodification of the ethereal. But maybe that very approach, and the theory of religion implicit to it, already stacks the deck in favor of one side over the other in such disputes…?