DeMon Part 1: BHIM Me Up Scotty

Recent events have dredged up my long time disdain for banking in general and Indian bankers specifically. The misgivings I have for the banking system in India are centered on a few themes.
A) Legacy Baggage
B) Present Obstacles
C) Future Obstacles

Legacy Baggage

Banking as an industry has for long been selling only two core products that no other competitor has been able to sell due to governmental meddling in financial matters, security and guaranteed returns. Let’s take a look at each of these products.

Legacy Baggage: Security
This is one of the fundamental legacy functions that banks built their business on. Dating back to the 1700s and 1800s when the rule of law wasn’t enforceable effectively enough, and people needed a place to stash their life savings, banks capitalized on the ineffectiveness of taxpayer-funded security as well as the unaffordability of private security.

They proposed a model of centralized security by pooling all the at risk assets into fewer locations that would make private security affordable. This served two purposes, providing banks with ready capital that they could invest, and relieving the government of having to allocate already scarce taxpayer-funded security towards a rash of burglaries which were essentially a low value crime in the genre of theft, and concentrate those resources on other higher value crimes, i.e. crimes involving destruction of public/private property, crimes involving physical harm to the public, etc.

This however brought with it, a new breed of criminal. Ones who were desperate enough to risk skirmishes with the bank’s private security in order to make a previously unviable operation of breaking and entering viable. The money at an individual’s house, was barely secure, especially from armed robbers, but it was not worth the trouble of organizing an armed robbery of most houses, since over 90% of the population was poor, and the payout from such a robbery would be such a pittance, that they would have to commit a dozen such robberies a day, to even pay their gang. This put them at extreme risk every single day with hardly any reward.

The centralization of risk, gave these criminals a new option by making it viable to commit armed robbery. By making it possible to get those 90% of the populace to gather all their money at a few locations, it made the haul size big enough, that such criminals could hit one bank and live off their share of the loot for many months, before having to rob again. In many cases, the take was so large, they could even retire for the rest of their lives. That was such a strong motivator, that this resulted in a rash of bank robberies, which got the government worried.

Banks were (are?) a very important cog that kept two inter-related machines moving smoothly, the machines of commerce and elections. The machine of commerce needed vast amounts of money as every newly independent country needed to invest in basic infrastructure facilities like transportation, electricity and water in order to be able to prop up the rest of the economic engine. These were long gestation capital-intensive projects that were so exorbitantly expensive that no single person, or group of persons could invest in them. This is where banks came into the picture. By acting as brokers of trust, they save the business the hassle of dealing with a hundred thousand investors, and they gave the individual a safe way to invest their meagre savings without having to track its progress.

This way, a cycle could be established whereby, banks would authorize a line of credit to such businesses, who would then use that to pay workers their wages, who would then deposit said wages in the bank, which would lend it right back to the business, to keep the cycle going while an asset got created in the process. On their own, neither party would be able to arrive at a deal, the business not wanting to deal with raising finances from a hundred thousand investors, and the investor not trusting the business their life’s earnings, however little that may be. The bank’s guarantee of their deposit was what enabled this cycle to start and maintain momentum.

The electoral machine was (is?) an interconnected machine, that promised people jobs in exchange for votes, and they got the banks to advance money to businesses who then created jobs. In return, the businesses funded the elections while the workers provided the votes. This helped keep the election machine in motion.

So these bank robbers were destabilizing two very huge machines, which were the backbone of development itself. If public lost faith in the bank’s ability to protect their money AND provide a return on it, they would cash out. If they cashed out, banks couldn’t lend to big projects. If big projects didn’t get funded, they couldn’t hire. If they couldn’t hire, those who were cashing out from banks, would be out of a job. This would mean the commerce and election machinery would simultaneously break down. Since unemployment would not act as an incentive for voting, and elections wouldn’t be funded by businesses without money.

So the government got into the ring, and threw regulatory punches all around. It started by insuring all deposits out of its own pocket, so long as the banks followed certain rules, to ensure the government wouldn’t get the short end of the stick. This ensured that the public were reassured about putting money into banks, since the government would guarantee their deposits. The government then went after banks, asking them to further centralize their cash holdings into designated government warehouses that were further secured with such an intimidating show of force that even considering robbing such a place would be tantamount to contemplating suicide. To finally seal the deal, they drastically increased the penalties for such offences making the time not worth the money, since banks no longer had that kinds of cash on them and the penalties were so stiff, most people simply opted for less riskier criminal endeavors.

That in short, is the story of how banks came to be the de facto warehouse of cash by virtue of security services they provided. Cut to the present, robberies, especially armed robberies, are at an all-time low. Civil law enforcement has caught up to such an extent, that the number of robberies per street per year has fallen into the decimal territory. Take a moment to fully absorb the implications of that statement. It means that on an average, for any given street, there have been less than 1 robbery every 10 years. This includes business establishments as well as homes.

Surely, this is a no-brainer you say, there are hardly any more robberies, because nobody has any cash anymore. Everyone deposits their cash at the bank, so there are no homes and businesses to rob. The banks deposit their cash at the government’s strongholds, so there are no more banks to rob, not cost-effectively at least. The government stronghold is so heavily guarded, which makes it suicidal to attempt to rob, hence no robbery there as well. Ergo, the system works, making banks essential to the security of our money. If you stop putting money in the banks, and people start stocking cash at homes and businesses again, the cycle of robberies would start right up again, since there would be incentive for petty thieves again, right?

Wrong. Now consider this, if the system was working because everyone was securely storing their cash at the bank, how come at the time the demonetization was announced, banks and the RBI combined has less than 25% of the demonetized cash with them while the public had the rest? The demonetized cash amounted to 16 lakh crores, of which banks and the RBI hardly has 4 lakh crores on them. The demonetized cash accounted for 86% of the cash in circulation, which meant that the rest 14% was made up by smaller denomination notes. From a security perspective, it is safe to assume that smaller denomination notes have a lesser chance of being at the bank than a bigger denomination note, given the security risks of each.
This can further be backed up by crime statistics. Look at the number of violent muggings that involve people with only smaller denomination notes, versus those who had higher denomination notes on them, and study the level of physical violence involved with wresting said cash from its holder. So it would be safer to assume that the amount of small denomination cash with the public is much higher at figures nearing or over 90%, leaving the rest 10% with banks and the RBI.

Let that sink in fully. The banks and RBI were securely protecting less than 25% of high denomination notes, and less than 10% of the low denomination notes. If an average of 85% of all available cash was out in public hands, are banks really performing a security role worth mentioning? From these statistics it clearly plays out that improved law enforcement is what allows 85% of the cash to be held by the public with minimal concern, than faith in the banking system.

Legacy Baggage: Lending

There are a number of service deficiencies I would love to cover, so let me quickly run though the highlights of some of them. The first of them would have to be the lending bias. Banks are insured by the government, and as one of those conditions of insurance, they have to abide by certain lending norms. These norms may have a benefit in terms of the entire banking industry per se, but become an impediment at an individual transaction level. They ensure the public’s faith in the banking system, by rewarding caution and encouraging conservativeness. However, in a bid to bring objectivity and auditability to the process, they created a documentation and securitization bias. Docu what?

Documentation bias is the bias towards applications that are heavy on documentation. Ideally such an application would have reams of data, citing industry reports, customer surveys, viability reports, feasibility studies, license documentation, regulatory compliances, years of accounting data, auditor reports, and the like.

Unfortunately, this leave the process inaccessible to small businesses and other businesses that are not docu-savvy enough to jump through all these hoops. It also ensures that only people with pockets deep enough to afford jumping through these hoops actually get loans from banks.

Securitization bias is the bias towards an applicant with collateral that can be securitized. In simple words, if you want 100 bucks, you have to prove that you already have 120 bucks worth of stuff that the bank can seize in case you don’t pay up. If you want 100 bucks but don’t have 120 bucks, you’re out of luck, since the bank will only lend to those who already have money, and not to those who need money to make money. The proliferation of money lenders is due to this phenomenon, where bankers try to pretend multiple-personality disorder with their customers and regulators. When it comes to charging, customers for services, they pretend to be businesses that need to meet costs that they’re passing on to customers. When it comes to lending money, which is the business they are actually supposed to be in, they pretend to be custodians of public faith, and hence cannot lend money unless every single buck they lend is covered by collateral. That is the exact opposite of business as an idea, which is to risk something to get something more. If lending is your business, and you don’t lend until every buck is guaranteed, then you’re not really a business. Hence the pretense of custodians of public faith.

I do not begrudge the necessity of these biases, because documentation biases help filter out kite-fliers from borrowing for frivolous concepts, while also helping guide the discretionary powers of the lender while keeping them objective, by making them check items off a list. Securitization bias brings a level or seriousness to the borrower, and ensures they have some skin in the game rather than simply playing off on the house’s money, while also protecting the depositor’s interests. It also helps keep borrowing costs low.

However, we must also acknowledge that these biases have restricted lending to only a few elite, which fits the generally derisive motto accorded to bankers, a banker will only lend you money if you can prove that you don’t need it. While the documentation bias, keeps those who have collateral from getting loans by making them jump through paperwork hoops, the securitization bias keeps money from getting into anyone without collateral by prioritizing the depositor’s interests over all else, ostensibly. More on this in the PayPM section.

Present Obstacles

These are a set of obstacles that have plagued the industry for a while now and continue to plague them. Unlike security, which was the basis of their genesis, or lending which is a regulatory hurdle, these are obstacles of their own creation, through which they have shackled themselves and their customers.

Present Obstacles: Customer Service

For as long as I can remember, or those I’ve spoken to can remember, Indian bankers have treated customers like shit. Special thanks to the nationalization of most banks, it created a class of employees who behave like entitled bureaucrats smugly smirking in their lifetime appointments with retirement accounted for through taxpayer money. They are ostensibly running a business, albeit one without risk, in a role that doesn’t hold them accountable beyond the specifics of their jobs, for an owner who doesn’t give a damn because the shareholders don’t hold the owner accountable.

Customers are harassed when opening an account to give money so that banks can make money off it. Knowing fully well that they would be the least likely person to get that money as a loan, customers queue up to put money into banks, so that banks can profit from it, and in return get harassed while in the process of enabling the bank to exist. Banks exist because thousands and millions of people come in and deposit money, and when you harass a person who comes to open an account, it is like the tree hacking its roots because they are ugly and make the tree look ugly.
Customers are harassed when depositing money into their account, the very activity that lets the bank give out a loan. They are also harassed when withdrawing money from their account. What is this harassment word that I liberally sprinkle into every sentence? Here’s a small list:
1) The banker is happily seated, while the customers stand in queues often for hours.
2) The banker leaves for lunch, while the customer continues standing in queue lest they lose their spot in the queue.
3) Most banks don’t even have drinking water available for customers standing in queues.
4) Most bank don’t even have toilets that the customers can use.
5) Most transactions require a form to be filled.

Are you kidding me? Filling a form is harassment? You may ask. Let me put you in someone’s shoes for a bit. Let’s say you couldn’t swim, and someone forced you onto a rickety boat. Once on board, the oarsmen take their own sweet time rowing, while all the time verbally abusing you. You take it up with the captain who threatens to throw you overboard if you speak about the crew again. Would you call that harassment?

Imagine denying someone who cannot speak entry into your premises unless they clearly stated their names for the record. It may be a security measure, it may be a protocol you are ordered to follow, but that doesn’t make it right. You have brain for a reason, generally that reason would be apply common sense about when to enforce or not enforce a rule. You may request an ID and scrutinize it all you want, but denying a dumb person entry until they can speak their name out loud, would be easily beyond that common sense line.

Similarly, forcing a person who cannot read to fill a form because that’s the way your bank does things IS harassment. There are millions of Indians who cannot read, and I have personally seen old people break down in front of me requesting me to help fill their form, since nobody else would, and the bank staff were dismissive of requests to help.

Let me back up a little, and explain the customers-like-shit part in more detail. In many rural branches that I’ve been to, I have repeatedly seen customers abused in filthy language for not comprehending what the banker told them, and I personally have been subject to some friendly banter from bankers with greetings like “Why the hell do you come to the bank without a pen. Do you think this is a cinema hall to come without pen. You know there will be forms to fill, are you stupid to come here without a pen.?” My crime, trying to withdraw money through a cheque. I had filled in the details before I left home, and expected to just present the cheque. The banker wanted an extra signature on the back of the cheque that already had a signature on the back, after collecting a photocopy of my ID and verifying my original ID and confirming that it was me who was the account holder, present in person to withdraw money from my own account, having signed on the front and back of the cheque. The signature was not done in his presence, so he wanted to see me sign. Since I had not expected any paperwork, I did not bring along my pen, so I asked him for his, since he was the one who asked me to sign. That was the friendly banter that ensued. Top-class customer service.

Right after the nationalization, bankers treated customers like they were the plague, and needed to be avoided if possible, and if absolutely necessary to interact with them, to wear a face mask and gloves and keep them at am arm’s length. I have seen people who go to banks to deposit their money treated like they were there to ask the bank for a favor. People who go to banks to withdraw their money, are treated like they’ve gone there, not to collect their money, or borrow from the bank, rather like someone who had come to beg alms from the bank. Ironically, those who go to borrow large sums of money are taking straight to the manager’s cabin, with the AC cranked up if available, and given a cushy chair and cool drink, while those who go to deposit a small amount into their own account, are made to stand in queues often for hours.

With the advent of a few private players like ICICI and HDFC, bankers started showing a tiny bit of respect for the customer, and service levels in public banks rose from abysmal depths to basement levels. They still have a long long way to go, and the first step to doing that would be to stop feeding like leeches on the customer and at least accord them the respect that you give to guests at your home, who come to eat your food and leave while being treated with respect. Even people who come to your place and cost you hospitality expense in return for some jokes get more respect than the person who pays your salary twice so that you can entertain said guests in a home, let alone have a home. Yeah, that wasn’t a typo, the customer pays your salary twice. Once when they pay taxes that allowed the government to get the capital to put the bloody bank in the first place, and secondly when they give you the money to lend and earn your actual salary out of, and finally when they continue paying your taxes which allow the government to pay you your salary in case the bank is not self-sufficient.

Future Obstacles: PayPM

RaGa seems to think he’s finally figured out the secret to poetry. Poetry is simply rhyming two words and putting a bunch of words between them. So when says “PayTM is PayPM”, he smirks thinking what a smartass he must be to come up with such a catchy phrase. Makes me want to yell, you idiot, is this how short sighted you are you moron. PayTM would be PayPM if the PM (literally Modi as an individual investor, or PM the designation as a substitute word for the government as an investor) was an investor in PayTM. Sadly there are two disturbing facts in that jibe, which is that using PayTM actually enriches investors who are mostly not even Indians, by virtue of their funding the concept. They did not have a problem with a Chinese businessman holding a huge stake in a company that signed up millions of new customers in a matter of days, but have no qualms using the company’s name to take a jibe at the PM.

It shows a serious failing on the part of those running banks from two perspectives. Firstly, the fact that nowhere in the world did a bank back a billion dollar business from scratch during this millennium. There have been over a dozen billion dollar companies that have been established in this millennium but not a single one of them has received any significant money from a bank. In India, there have been over a dozen new companies that have created mass hysteria and widespread customer adulation have gotten money from banks. Secondly, the fact that PayTM even exists, and millions of people signed up for it within a few days shows the quality and levels of service that banks have been providing up until now.

If banks were really bloody doing their job and keeping up with customer’s expectations from them, why would a PayTM even come into existence, let alone obtain such a wide user base in such a short span of time? RaGa doesn’t question the disease and instead questions the symptom like the genius that he is. The question should be why banks were not already doing this, and not why PayTM is receiving this money. PayTM found a deficiency in the customer service offered by banks in relation to what customers wanted, essentially banks were out of touch with what customers expected, and commercially exploited it. The sad part is, public sector banks never got out of touch with customer needs, that would imply that at some point history, they were in touch. Public sector banks have never been in touch with customer needs and don’t give a damn what those needs are.

Public sector banks have a history of reacting to change with extreme reluctance and only when forced through sheer public protest, even then only after repeated regulatory prodding. Even cattle walking the slaughter line have move towards the blade faster than these banks have moved towards customer satisfaction.

They try to find innovative ways to avoid opening accounts, by continuously pointing to real and imagined documentation deficiencies. If you somehow manage to get an account opened, they try to wear you down by harassing you out of transacting by driving you out of the bank through sheer exasperation and their own blend of lackadaisical attitude. They had to be forced to enable Net Banking, forced to issue out cards, forced to allow funds transfer, forced to offer new modes of banking. There is hardly any popular examples of a public sector bank coming out with a service for customers that did not involve the RBI shoving a streetlamp up their behind. Even then they try their level best to drag their heels on the adoption hoping any such new initiative dies out of frustration before they have to act on it.

Future Obstacles: Government Apathy

Every government department that accepts digital payments to customers charges them for it. Seriously? What do they smoke? You try to pay your current bill, or water bill or even bloody municipal tax, they charge you 2% or 20 bucks or whatever, as a convenience charge to offset their payment gateway charges. Even things like gas booking and petrol pumps charge this ridiculous fee. The rationale behind it, being that not collecting it would mean they have to bear that cost, causing revenue loss. First of all, the most banks as well the government service agencies from gas agencies, petroleum companies, utility companies are all government owned. It makes no sense for one arm of the government to profit due to another’s insistence of charging the customer for convenience.

Then there’s the whole issue of the ‘convenience’ itself. With today’s burgeoning population availing government services, it is imperative of the government to provide facilities that are convenient to the customer and not the other way round. The government works for us. If there are 40,000 electricity meters under a particular sub-station, and they generate bills with a 10-day lead time, they better have the staff to handle either 4000 bill payments a day for 10 days, or even 40000 bill payments a day on the last day. It is the customer’s choice given a credit period, on which day they can find the time to make the payment. If you don’t like that, then increase the lead time to 20 days or 30 days, else increase your staff. Instead when they come up with a system that allows them to accept crores of payments in a single day with a staff of 2-3 people to maintain the servers, they charge the customer for this, calling it a convenience charge.

Let’s take a look at this convenience. The government incurs staff costs and also the ensuing pay hikes, and strikes and leaves and idle time and chitchat, and accompanying bullshit baggage that people carry with them. Add to that the regulatory framework of their working days and working hours and working conditions, and you have a handful of headaches already. Add to that the benefit that taxpayers get, of standing in line in the scorching sun, in places without even drinking water or restrooms for hours to pay their bills. Then consider a system that lets people skip the queue and pay at any time of any day at their ‘convenience’ and the ensuing cost savings of hundreds of employees and their shenanigans. Yet the government feels it is justified in charging customers for the ‘privilege’ it granted them of not standing the queue. The government won’t increase staff costs to handle the additional connections, and yet charges customers to not stand in lines. Let’s say customer chose to stand in lines, the government can’t even handle that demand. They can’t provide the service through traditional means which are free for the customer, and when it is possible to provide the service through another means, they charge the customer for it, calling it a convenience. Just the reconciliation costs itself would cover their payment gateway charges and leave room to give customers a discount.

Very smart move for Digital India. Ask customers to pay their bills digitally and then charge them for it, instead of paying in cash and not facing additional charges. Which idiot came up with this Digital India concept without even making basic governmental changes in terms of charges to customers? Given the number of savings that digital payments confer to the respective government agencies, they should offer customers discounts for paying through that route. But no, let’s take Ambedkar’s name, whip up a shitty acronym that we can link to it, and then fleece customers. Time for these guys to stop smoking whatever Rambrosia they’re on.

Future Obstacles: Modi Mafia

Here’s a sample of the charges at banks nowadays.
1) Cash handling charges: That’s for whenever you visit the branch to take cash or give cash. Charges based on number of transactions per month, with some free allowance. In a way, it is charges to deposit money
2) Chequebook charges: That’s for when you write cheques to draw money, or give money to someone else. The charge is for the chequebook, with a few free cheques every month. In a way it is a withdrawal charge.
3) ATM charges: That’s for when you don’t feel like writing cheques but still want to pay the bank some money to let you take your money.
4) Transfer charges: That’s for when you’ve had enough of this cash charges and want to send money through the banking system instead. RTGS, NEFT, IMPS, UPI, BHIM, or whatever other pokemon chota bheem acronym they come up with, are all chargeable. Why, well because unlike cash deposit/withdrawal which require humans to sit in the counter and cost a lot of human money, servers use electricity and they too need to get paid.
5) Swiping charges: Using your debit/credit card anywhere incurs charges for the merchant, who in most cases promptly transfer those charges onto customers.

When somebody tells you whom you can do business with and whom you can’t and then even charges you for it, you call them the mafia. In this case I would call this the Modi mafia. When you force people to use digital methods only and then let banks profit from said digital methods and said banks are owned by you, essentially, you are forcing people to only deal with banks, and then making people pay for the privilege of dealing with banks. Sounds like the mafia to me. Let’s examine two of the aspects that are central to this ideology: governance and costs.

Governance: You want a cash-less economy so that you can trace the flow of money and arrest the flow as well as source of your so-called ‘black’ money. OK.

Costs: Banks and other government agencies incur costs related to transactions hence need to charge customers in order to provide the service. OK.

Now here’s the parts of this whole clownish scheme that I find silly:
1) Black Money: There is no such thing as black money. It is as real as Godzilla or Shaktimaan. You can read more on this in my next post. Suffice it to say this whole bogus war on black money is clownish, like a dog barking at its reflection in the mirror

2) Costs: Banks charge me an account maintenance fee, for what? To take my account out every month and give it a nice shampoo bath? They pay me 4%(savings)-8%(fd/rd) interest for my money, and lend it out at 10%(vehicle/home)-14%(business loans)-18%(credit cards). The difference in that interest rates goes to whom, and I am not even double/triple/quadruple counting the interest they earn, which is closer to reality. So it safe to say for every 1% interest they bank pays me as cost of funds, they earn at least 3-4% and sometimes maybe 7-8%. If they can’t meet payroll and pay dividends on that, would this 2% or 5-10 bucks a transaction help pay for their electricity needs? Stop bullshitting people with banks need to meet transaction costs. Ghanta costs. If they give money out for 16% while paying 4% for it and still can’t make a profit on it, will this 2% get them out those depths of misery they wallow in right now, pulling in thousands of crores in profits?

3) Privacy: If the government wants to track ‘black’ money, it must improve its taxation oversight, not increase its transactional oversight. As a salaries, if all of my direct tax obligations have been deducted from my employer even before I saw any income, and all my indirect tax obligations are extracted from me during consumption, why should I let the government see how many condoms I bought and where? It is like saying the roof has a lot of holes, let’s stop the rain instead of fixing the roof. Whether I fulfill my indirect tax obligations or not, it is the seller’s responsibility to remit my share of the indirect taxes due. There are a billion consumers, but hardly 20 million retailers. You can’t deal with the data from 20 million retailers and extract whatever tax you need to, so you want to spy on a billion consumers, to extract that data? Duh, wake up bozos, if you can’t keep track of and make sense of info or lack thereof from 20 million people, you really think the smart way to do that would be to collect data from a billion people and make sense of it. Sounds like we suck at small data, so let’s switch to big data. No way I’m letting you know where I buy my chaddis, just so you can maybe, possibly, potentially, supposedly, hopefully catch some will-o-the-wisp that you call ‘black money’.

4) Charge: If you really want me to give up my privacy and others to invest in learning a new way of conducting business, and usher in a new era of end-to-end transparency, hallelujah. But hold on, did I miss the part where I have to pay for it? You want me to tell you where I spend my money, whom I give I to, when I give it, how much of it I give, taxed money mind you, and in return you’ll also charge me for it, what Rambrosia are you smoking dude? If you own the banks and want all of us to only transact through the banks, and the banks charge us for said transactions, this is a shakedown scheme, not some sacred mission. Before you utter another of these delusional ‘BHIM my ass up Scotty’ lines, stop profiting from this so called so-called sacred mission. Most banks or at least most of the money in banks is in public sector banks. When they make a profit, the government makes a profit. It is beginning to sound more and more like this whole drama was enacted to let the government make more profit. If you don’t want it to sound that way, the fix is simple, abolish all transaction charges forever. Why should the banks and government profit off me, just because you want the administrative convenience of a billion people underwear purchases, which you can then handover to bumbling idiots who could not even handle the data of 20 million people?

5) Necessity: If the merchant is right in front of me, why should both of us pay the bank account maintenance charges, transaction charges, payment handling charges, telecom operator charges (internet/ussd), just so that you can spy on both us and give us your benevolent blessing that everything is on the up and up? What is this, the new surveillance state with a topping of charges and shakedowns? Seems like you want us to pay to install a surveillance system on ourselves. If you want the data to catch these ‘black money’ criminals who exist in your imagination, then you foot the bill for it, why should people who have no desire to participate in your Quixotic adventures be charged the entry ticket to your fantasy twice? Once for the transaction, and then as a tax.

There are lots of topics I left out, like the EMV nexus who also profit from wilful banker misconduct, banker corruption, etc. This itself was difficult to squeeze into the middle of a work day, so maybe some other time.

Couch Potato Sympathies – Stuff It

I have not yet seen an episode of Satyameva Jayathe, but am not surprised at the wave of good words spreading around about the show. As is common with anything that succeeds, the second fastest way to get famous, is to lash out/criticise something that is already/just famous. So you have the dozen-odd standard detractors, who take it upon themselves to explain why the show sucks, etc. So here’s my attempt to piggyback on something famous just for the heck of it.

If you look at the various players on this stage, they each have their motives (or atleast most do). Let us take a look at some of them:

Producers/Aamir Khan:

Anyone with money and interest in the arts, is free to pursue their calling, and mint money anyway they can. I fail to understand why someone would have a problem with Aamir Khan using his money, to produce and star in a series that he believes in. Of course, he is not running a charity, it is a business, not an agony aunt column in a monthly magazine, to entertain readers for free with ridiculous answers to even more ridiculous questions probably typed by the agony aunt’s secretary, who will naturally run out of steam after month upon month of inventing questions.

If Aamir Khan decides the best way to spend his buck is to milk a few tears on/off the screen, then that’s his prerogative, and his alone. The fact that the tears are milked towards issues of national interest, human interest, etc. are an added bonus that help solidify his revenue model. It ensures that the viewers are locked-in through a nice combination of star value, burning issues, and the onion-competing words without the grand sets of saas-bahu operas (i guess they are called soap because the actors need to wash their mouth with soap, given the way they speak), an opportunity to assuage people’s worthlessness to society by shedding a few tears, etc.

If anything, he needs to be commended for continuously extending his Midas streak, by showing an uncanny understanding of how to tap into a market’s psyche.

Media/Fourth Estate:

This is the group of people whose role Aamir usurped since they were busy making 3D animated re-enactments of a juicy crime, or trying to one-up each other to release blurred/mosaic-art versions of smartphone porn, or trying to compete in the Most Inane Panel Discussion Show award by humouring washed-out sportspersons, if an existing player was a fitting compatriot for their Old Boys club or not, or maybe trying to get exclusive footage of the towel stand in the maternity ward of a hospital, so that they could say these towels were going to be used post-delivery, and only their channel had this exclusive ‘of a white towel’.

So they do the job they now best do, take someone’s who makes a show about burning national issues (which they were supposed to be doing, btw) and charge to promote it, and then make more money on the spinoff programs that they can concoct, like [you guessed it right] a panel discussion on female foeticide by village-renown experts on the subject, and of course, inviting the audience to spam a scrolling bar, with SMS opinions for a premium fee. If someone is doing your job, the best way to look good, is to make him look good, and say you stand behind him 100%, and you espouse whatever he supports, and you despise whatever he condemns. That way, you can make it look like you are doing a fantastic job, and getting celebrity value involved into your job.

Service Providers/Franchisees:

This is the best role to play, because it involves the least risk for the greatest reward. Pay the producer some amount, wait for him to shoot an episode, wait for people to cry about some sad thing in their lives on air, wait for the media to go all-out promoting those tears through finely edited trailers and teasers, wait for some pathetic loser to get so moved by the episode, they send you a wonderful premium SMS ranging from Rs. 2-5, stating how repulsed they are that such things go on in their own country.

There is so much money to be made. Coffee mugs, t-shirts with the series name, meet the victim, meet the star, meet the rapist, get autographed merchandise, all by sending one simple SMS. Making money has never been more easier, what with people dying to text TV channels with their valuable opinions instead of relatives with a kind word, or a friend with a thanks.


This is a role you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in, the most worthless among roles, and also the cash-cow that fuels the series engine, and pays the bills of every other player onstage. Their work is to sit on the couch, popcorn bucket ready for a lazy Sunday morning telecast of a program to spend quality family time with everyone staring at an idiot box, shed copious tears, get overwhelmed enough to send out a premium SMS to save the girl child, or boy panda. There are so many diverse walk-on parts, that tracking all the players in this category is a mind-boggling exercise, there are millions of them simply sitting dumbstruck by what they’ve seen, and other millions busy texting to voice their complete premium SMS support for the cause, and against the evil. They really believe that if Airtel or whoever gets 1 crore SMS, all the ultrasound machines will automatically get blurred around the gender and show important vital stats while discreetly draping the gender behind a modesty charm.

It is even harder to understand, their distant cousins, who do re-enactments of Sachin’s visa ad, by re-tweeting, facebook-ing, and gplus-ing “I’ve sent out a premium SMS, now you go send one” or worse still, “if enough people Like my status, the Govt. has agreed to jail all erring doctors, and Airtel has agreed to throw a 50-paise coin on the graves of unborn girls”.

It makes me wonder if people understand what they are even saying. To call a show fantastic/great/effective, it depends what parameter you use to measure that greatness/effectiveness. From a production/distribution standpoint, it is a roaring success. Never before has one production been syndicated simultaneously across so many languages, never before has a series where the audience has no chance to make any money brought so much money for all the middlemen and opportunists milking the moment for all it is worth and then some more. Millions of people who shooed away mothers begging with infants (live real infants) in their bosoms without so much as giving a Rupee, and with a bonus look of disgust, spent 2-5 Rupees of their own initiative by reading a rapidly scrolling SMS number, to text away the money to a cash-rich telecom company because they have a tie-up with a producer who is letting you hear the horrors being perpetrated on unborn infants. Yeah, go ahead, send Airtel 3 Rupees more to add to their quarterly earnings report, instead of giving 3 begging mothers 1 Rupee each for their starving infants.

If a show really has an impact on an audience, it doesn’t make them feel sad, it makes them feel angry. The difference in feeling sad, and feeling angry, is what those emotions make you do. Sorrow, makes you cry for a few minutes, post a frownie on Facebook, and maybe SMS some money to a cash-overloaded company. Angry makes you take to the streets, demand action, hold the Govt. to its expected standard of accountability, and if necessary bring down the Govt. if they fail to be accountable to you. How is that for starters? Sorrow makes you sink into yourself, and wait for anyone consoling you to tap into you vulnerability, and encash it. Anger makes you lash you at what you perceive to be the cause for the anger, and maybe makes those who are responsible/irresponsible pay for it. Contrast a crore people forming a human chain to express their solidarity with Anna’s movement, and protesting countrywide, until the Govt. backpedalled and appeared to incorporate the people’s version of an anti-corruption bill with a crore SMSes being sent from the comfort of a sofa to tell Airtel they were in for a lot more money, if Aamir could make them cry more in the next episode. That is anger vs. sorrow.

Journalism (which this series is not, and does not pretend to be) reaches its nadir, when it can influence popular opinion on sensitive issues to such an extent that it turns the reader towards activism for the subject, instead of shedding a tear on the newspaper and turning to the next page. That is the true power, the potent power of words, to manipulate a reader/viewer into action, of the action kind, and not the typing kind.

Sadly though, not everything can be resolved on the streets. When a Govt. is at fault, you can get on to the streets, disrupt everyone’s else lives until the Govt. caves in, or orders the police to whack your ass blue. But foeticide and child abuse are not matters that the Govt. can legislate/police into the republic. It is an individual matter, that the Govt. cannot poke their nose into, even if they wanted to. The Govt. can force people of different castes to mingle in a classroom, by forcing a legislation onto them, and it barely works, but nevertheless is somewhat effective because of economies of scale. If 100 crore people are divided along 100 broad caste lines, each caste line has 1 crore people in common. Targeting them with schemes/penalties will help incentivise/disincentivise the entire group to a great extent.

But abortions/paedophilia is not an industrial scale activity in terms of cohesiveness. It cuts across all lines of caste, religion, gender. How do you magically identify individuals who are planning to get a gender-based abortion? How do you identify in which room of whose house, a child is being abused? How do you force parents/relatives to not abuse their children by threat of litigation? How do you prove an individual’s right to an abortion is not being abused for gender/caste? This is not something that people can fight on the street, or on a social network. It is something that needs to be fought in every home, by every family member. Which brings us to the next player on stage, the Victim.



I have read hundreds of tweets/posts that appreciate the courage of those who were brave enough to on national television to share their harrowing experiences with complete strangers. For them it helps in some ways as a means of closure. Expression is one of the most effective ways of unburdening yourself of pent up repressive/regressive emotions. When traumatic experiences are forcibly suppressed into the recesses of the mind, they haunt people until they get it out of their system. So, sharing an experience like ‘my husband forced me to abort a female foetus’ or ‘my uncle touched me inappropriately’ must have definitely helped them get decades worth of shame and guilt off their mind, partially atleast.

However, what it does not do, is fix the issue. Performing a sting operation, might take down a corrupt MP, but it doesn’t stop corruption, because what a sting operation proves is that X was indulging in a particular activity. It brings the spotlight on X, and also on the activity for a few days, a month at the most, and then fades away onto something else. The spotlight, is exactly what it says it is, an avenue to focus attention on an issue. The spotlight cannot do the dance, fights, dialogues, and item numbers, it can only shed light. It is a medium to create awareness on a dark recess where undesirable activities have been going on. By itself, it is useless. Making a show that highlight barbarian, inhuman, psychopathic tendencies in everybody’s homes, is just that, a spotlight. It shows you what is going on, but a show cannot do your actions/reactions for you. It can only present the facts, of course tilted favourably/unfavourbly towards one side or the other.

While sharing/confessing your trauma on television might you feel better/less depressed, it does not set right the scales of justice.You go on TV, say you had to lose your child, and you feel hurt beyond words, and are devastated, etc, but what happened to your husband? Is he in jail? Did you divorce him? Did you try punishing him? The law may not have a remedy for quasi-voluntary abortions, but you do. Do you pretend-smile and make breakfast for the man who made you snuff out the life that you painfully carried in your womb? National outrage at your household happenings can make people send an SMS, but that is about all that they can/will do. They have their own household to take care of. And of course, a movie to go to in the evening, and forget your name, or the show. The show name they will probably remember since they need to see some new tragic faces with new horrible stories, along with some of that latest noodles-soup combo on the side, of course. Did you approach the Govt./police saying you were coerced into an abortion. Probably not. Did the Govt./police (read some headlines, “Govt cracks down on ultrasound scanner in Rajasthan”) that appears to be bothered, now that everyone has made them the favourite punching bag for any and all issues, approach you after seeing the show, to arrest your husband? Quite unlikely.

Guess what is the reason? Choice. You made a choice, or maybe had no choice. That your lifestyle, your position in society, your comfortable/miserable existence in the condition you were, was far more important, maintaining the status quo with your in-laws and relatives, was more important, than trying to seek justice, which you might or might not get for a voiceless soul, whose heart isn’t beating yet. It is neither a good choice or a bad choice, nor an oxymoron like ‘only choice’. it is just a decision, and like every decision it has its consequences. You weighed the consequences of both the alternatives, and decided that your other children needed you, or that you couldn’t fend for yourself later, or whatever, and decided that it was simpler to squelch a voiceless voice, and be guaranteed the balance at your home was not upset, and that only you were upset by nightmares, instead of risking upsetting everything and everyone, so that you could give voice to a voiceless voice, and maybe or maybe not get justice for that cause. You chose certainty over possibility, and are forced to live out the consequences of that choice. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, that you are a victim, and society is the villain, or your husband/in-laws etc.

Same goes for those who chose to keep quiet about their abuse as a child. By keeping quiet, they mere making a choice, albeit, a childish immature one maybe, but a choice nevertheless, choosing certainty over uncertainty. Keeping quiet afforded the certainty that everything at home would remain the same, nobody would be jailed/punished, and all you had to do was put up with for as much time as you could, try to bury the shame/guilt/trauma and hope everything would be sunny and bright if you just closed your eyes for now, even if it meant you could never properly close your eyes at night. You weighed the uncertainty as well, what if if broke up the family, and you never could see your lecherous dad again? what if even worse, nobody believed you, and that left you with a very angry and vengeful perpetrator, intent upon inflicting more pain upon you in the cozy confines of your own home? You weighed these two choices, and chose certainty. This for all probable purposes, let these psychos roam around fondling many more kinds because you wanted your home to be appear nice and beautiful on the surface. You might have gotten whatever closure you got by seeming a victim and being a guest in a celebrity hosted Oprah-clone, but what closure does it give to those who are still being abused by the psycho, or might have been abused while you waited decades for the spotlight to fall on your trauma. That makes you an accomplice after the fact, and also makes you liable for harbouring a repeat child offender.

Other miscellaneous players:

Am too tired to type about the other players like the Govt., activists, etc. Let someone have some respite.


Overall, I was just trying to say, Aamir is doing his bit, by making money off doing someone else’s job (the media’s). The media are getting their job done by someone else, and charging for showing-off that work and minting money by generating buzz and encashing that buzz through increased discussion from people who otherwise did not pay attention when they actually ran news around the very same issues that has the nation suddenly off their couch because Aamir Khan was covering these issues already covered. The telecom companies are riding the sympathy wave like the skilled surfers that they are, and making the most of every crest and fall in emotions. The victims have an opportunity to tell their story in a studio, and feel they have done their bit towards the cause. And of course the audience, who are dumb enough to listen to one person’s story and give away money to a completely unrelated person, and proudly tweet and repost that stupidity. Well, whatever works for people.



So having yapped so much and rampaged around on my moral high horse, what did i do about all this? Nothing. Sometimes, it is better to do nothing, and be true to doing nothing, than to be hypocritical and swing at windmills and claim you slayed a dragon called female foeticide or child abuse by swinging at a windmill.

On Solving All This Mess

I begin with a hope that this is the last thing I write about this topic, it has already extended to about nearly 4000 words before the start of this piece. So I hope with another 2000 or 3000 words in this one the whole thing is put to rest. Let me begin by saying that all this while I have been having a field day criticising just about anyone and everyone in the ‘industry’ with nobdy speaking up for them and so I therefore believe that either people have just got tired of this non-sense or they must be waiting for that magical solution that I purport to have hidden in my sleeve.

I suppose I could gladly state after my talks with lots and lots of people, whom I always ask one question, do you deal in pirated discs, if so why? I doubt whether the industry has ever tried to find out why people who do so, do so(am talking of the end-users). Whatever the industry view, atleast in my case more than 90% told me it was purely a question of cost. Mind you, more number of people distribute it for free than those who charge any money for it. Yet, almost every one of them them told me if it was cheap enough they BUY it, from the original maker itself. So without wasting more time, I shall launch right into some of the craziest ideas you have heard in a long long time(even if you did, the industry guys probably didn’t, so give them the benefit of doubt).

1. Cheaper than Dirt: The first reason why people don’t buy original is the cost. An original movie DVD costs about Rs. 300 and upwards, whereas a pirated one costs only about Rs. 30 and upwards. But the one fundamental aspect involved in both is that, in a capitalist economy, the ‘industry’ guys are trying to act like communists, demanding that you not only buy their products only, you also pay them whatever they ask even if it is not worth it. A blank DVD I bought yesterday in the market came for almost Rs. 7.50 and I am sure if the industry guys buy them in the qunatities that they do, they can get a blank one for Rs.5, the balance usually made up of middlemen’s profit margins. After taking into account the costs of duplication/recording and packaging, it would probably end up as a finished product ready to ship at a cost of about Rs.10. This would mean that even if they would definitely get in a margin of Rs.5 on every product, after taking into concern distribution costs and retailer margins.

The important point being that, the pirates don’t offer better packaging, nor do they offer better or even equivalent quality, in fact on both these counts they are far inferior. The only single reason why they sell as many as they sell is the price(meaning if the industry sold at the prices the pirates are selling, there would be no more piracy, because piracy exists almost solely due to the price gap, and mind you the pirates are not making losses selling at such prices). I always wonder why the industry refuses to acknowledge that fact and keeps on trying to spend increasing sums of customer-money on better protection technologies and anti-piracy measures. If only they could understand the minimum logic that people like Moser Baer have understood, they would have been much better off than they currently are. I fail to understand why they miss such a simple and obvious logic. In every city, only a thousand people pay for a MIcrosoft OS, because it ranges between Rs. 4000 to nearly Rs. 10,000 per PC. Which would translate into maybe 10,000×1,000, i.e. Rs. 1 crore. Conversely if they priced their OS at Rs.200 and bundled it along with the processor/board, they could have ensured that the more than 10 lakh PC’s that are sold every year are sold every year are sold with an OS already paid for, which would translate into revenues of 200×10,00,000, i.e. Rs. 20 crores. I am sure these people employ professionals who have more experience in the business and numbers than my age, but I would really love to see one of them questioning the logic of this arguement reasonably. I mean what would they prefer, revenues of 1 crore with millions of pirated installations around, or 20 crores of revenues with a million legitimate customers and that many lesser pirated copies going around?

2. New Age, New Avenues: Opponents of the first point might raise a valid point about it being uneconomical to distribute and sell at such low prices, given the margin expectations of retailers and other middlemen. I would simply say, have you tried alternative selling locations at the prices suggested above(I know you have tried the locations I am about to suggest above at your current prices)? Have you tried stocking your discs from the floor to the roof of a Big Bazaar, and then watch them fly off the racks at Rs. 20 per movie? You probably have more chance of selling 1 crore copies at Rs. 20 these days than you have at selling a few thousand copies at Rs. 300. have you tried hard-selling them in the same locations, for example getting Big Bazaar to give out your discs to customers instead of a cash discount of Rs. 15 or more. A cash discount of Rs. 15 might not mean as much to a customer as getting an original DVD from the shop as a complimentary gift although the items have to be paid for at MRP. That would I am sure you would agree, improve not only the industry sale prospects, it would also improve the goodwill for the store. Readers must note that the reason I mention names like Big Bazaar, is because of the changes in the marketplace that time has wrought. Nowadays hardly anybody visits specialty music stores like MusicWorld/PlanetM exclusively for the purpose of BUYING music(I mean hardly anybody goes out of their way to spend time looking for a music store, visiting one and then picking out the music), whereas the kinds of stores I have mentioned are high footfall areas, where even if they fail to purchase anything the store has to offer, they might just fall for this one, simply seeing the prices.

3. Impulse vs. Investment: The second major problem with the pricing is that it simply takes music/movies from the regions of the ordinary affordable forms of entertainment into the realms of a premium indulgence, more relatable to filthily rich people. There is a very fine line of difference between what makes up an impulse purchase and what makes up an investment, and the industry with its current pricing structure is far far away form that line. People perceive spending more than Rs. 300 on something that they usually watch once or twice as an ‘investment'(as in would you go to a restaurant everyday, or cook everyday at home and go to the restaurants on the weekends?, remember I am talking of the majority), as compared to spending Rs. 20 which they would deem as anyway lost on lots of other frivolities, instead of which if they bought this it would atleast last longer than those other frivolities. Just think to yourself, would you rather buy a cool drink everyday if it was priced at Rs. 5 or would you do so if it was priced at Rs. 30, and the answer will be clear and definite. One example I would like to quote of a company that was able to see this logic and able to MINT money from it, is Apple. They set up the iTunes store with the intention of selling songs at 99 cents. To paraphrase Steve Jobs own words, the idea was to make music an impulse purchase, so that people would think, what the heck, it’s hardly a dollar, and I get to legitimately own a song that I like, and the hundreds of millions of downloads are a testimony to the concept. Alas it seems the industry is sleeping on such an opportunity.

The industry could probably try to even better that by officially making the songs available for download onto mobiles for Rs.3 or 4 each. I am sure they would get more from 10 people downloading that one hit song, than one person buying the entire album. And in such a scenario we are talking of a market size that numbers in the crores(I understand it can only be done in smartphones, and am sure there must be lakhs of smartphones across the country).

4. Customer is King: For long the music companies have got away with many excesses, the primary of them being, selling the customer an entire album and charging them for the entire album, when most of the songs were trash, and only a song or two were wonderful. The customer had no choice because although he/she wanted to buy only that particular good song, the companies bundled the entire album and forced the customers to pay up for the rest of the mediocre stuff. The arrival of iTunes changed all that, because all those who refrained from investing that $10 or $12 on an album of mostly mediocre stuff or even worse mostly banal stuff, with only one or two redeeming songs, could now buy only that one single song, and hence, there arose a new trend of selling singles, and the sales of those single songs far outcrossed the entire sales of the albums in both numbers and revenues. iTunes was something that put the customer back in the driver’s seat again.

The next phenomenal thing that happened to change the way music is sold is to take it back to the medieval times, when musicians played in the streets and doffed their hats, and people showed their appreciation by filling it with coins. Lesson from it, let people pay when they like the product and let them pay the value they can afford, and the value they believe the music deserves rather than force a uniform price upon them. Case in point, Radiohead, who recently put up their album online for people to pay how much ever they wanted, which also included paying nothing if they didn’t want to. Peopl e who think both they are I are crazy should read the link above to know for themselves the results of such an experiment. By allowing the customer to pay for the music as and when they wanted and how much they wanted, it would ensure that you always brought out only excellent stuff, because nobody would pay you for sub-standard works. That way not only would you be able to give quality stuff to the customers, you would also be able to let them show their appreciation of the same. One small observation, guys like me who can never afford the music currently could get it for free now, and pay for it later when I actually can, kind of like the credit card system, that way the consumer as well as the industry benefits.

Too tired to type anymore now, so this article shall (un)fortunately remain a work in progress to which I shall keep adding, as and when I feel like putting more energy into the topic. So thats it for now. Time for you to let those profanities flow.

On Anti-Piracy

Having written in quite a sarcastic manner on the issue of ‘Piracy’, it is time now to focus on the next aspect of the issue, ‘Anti-Piracy’. For the purpose of this piece and for easier understanding of the article, it is divided into three portions.

1) Pirates.

2) Reasons.

3) Anti-Piracy Measures.

Pirates: To fully understand the necessity of any anti-piracy measures, we must first understand the root cause of all these, the pirate. Many people have defined the term in many ways, specially, the ‘industry’ people seem to have an ever-increasing definition of it. I shall however try to demystify the whole concept by presenting what I believe constitutes atleast 99.5% of the pirate population. I believe that these ‘pirates’ can be classified in two very broad categories, those who make money from it, and those who don’t. That seems the broadest possible categorisation, considering the sub-categories under it.

Let us first consider those who make money from it. These are people who have seen a potential business opportunity in a market where there is no physical scarcity, but an artificial inflation of prices by an industry following God alone knows what pricing structure in a self-created monopoly. They are mainly two kinds, the manufacturers and the retailers. Usually in this kind of business, there is a general absence of more  middlemen in order to keep the overall cost low. The manufacturers are the guys who hire a few pros, and get the cover design and other material replicated, often even compressing multiple titles onto one disc. In the case of books, those who scan and replicate the entire material and sometimes also create their own jacket designs. They are probably the only ones in the chain who hire technical help in the process. Next come the retailers, people who simply distribute whatever the manufacturer provides, they are in effect the customer-front of the entire operation,  ones who directly interact with the end-user. They have little or rather no need for technical help, all they need is to get the goods moving off the shelves, as quickly and quietly as possible.

Then come the kind, who don’t make any money from it. Usually the end-user and their associates. This constitutes a vast majority(more than 90%) of the pirate population. They can be further classified into two kinds, ones who redistribute what they have, and ones that don’t. Usually there is hardly any clear demarcation between the two. Most people usually belong to the first category, because there is always the chance that somebody wants something that they have, that somebody has something in ‘exchange’. Exchange is usually the primary reason for people to shift from the second category to the first. With the availability of cheap replication media, namely discs and flash drives, there is hardly any need for advanced technical knowledge to perform these distributions among them.

However there is an alternate categorisation I would like to propose, though I am sure certain groups of people wouldn’t agree with me. It is regarding the nature of criminality concerned and the awareness of it. I believe the two kinds of people concerned are those that know piracy is illegal and those that don’t. I guess I can already feel a number of readers laughing at this, but frankly I have met quite a number, and believe the actual figures may range in the crores, these people don’t even know of the term ‘piracy’ and are not even aware that the actions they are performing are criminal and may earn them lengthy prison terms. If anybody in the industry was to launch the ‘mother of all crackdowns’ then I would only pity these people the most among the lot, considering the law in force at present. Please note however that this does not mean that I either accept the law as fair or just, or that I have any kind of respect for such an unfair law.

Reasons: Obviously this part of the article is where I know the least, and every reader could possibly think of one more new reason than I can mention. So whatever I say here is probably only what I believe are the main reasons, and are probably not by any measure a representative sample of the actual reasons. The two main reasons I would point out to right away are Ability and Cost. I believe the that primary reason for piracy’s existence is the ‘Ability’, or in simpler words the simplicity with which replication can be done. The wide availability of replication devices often made available by those very members of the ‘industry’ is what enables this to be the number one reason for piracy. Copying material has become as simple as plucking an apple, anyway in most cases if you wait long enough the apple will anyway fall on it own. A lot of times it has been proved by many of the industry measures that things that are harder to replicate are less pirated by end-users, initially atleast. That way a lot of the end-users are dissuaded from pirating it, because of the level of complexity involved.

The next major reason for piracy is ‘Cost’. Most people are dissuaded form buying the original because of what they perceive as too high a cost. Meaning it doesn’t satisfy their expectations of the value they perceive they will derive from it. Most people specially regarding computer software believe it to be too much of an investment almost equal if not more to the hardware cost itself. So THEY BELIEVE that it isn’t worth paying that much to the original maker, not when somebody else can provide the same quality at a much cheaper price. You see, after all they are living in a competitive economy, or atleast that’s what their Government will have them believe. Although there are many more reasons they are usually derivatives of the above two to a large extent, like for example willingness to pay but inability with the current financial position, and so on.

Anti-Piracy Measures: This is the one topic that makes me laugh to my heart’s content. It refers to the measures the ‘Industry’ takes to ‘protect’/’enforce’ what they supposedly call their ‘rights’. These take many forms and many shapes, rather than me giving you a general lay of the land, it would be better to leave that to those more qualified. Copy Protection is the term the industry chose to prevent people(read mostly end-users who don’t make money from it) from rapidly distributing copies of their ‘copyRIGHTED’ property. And the kind of methods they use are beyond my usually self-constrained vocabulary to describe. Readers can check out this link for the magnitude of the collusion that occurs even behind the backs of those who legally pay for it. Being the conspiracy theorist that I am, I would say even the anti-virus companies were “paid-off” to shut their collective mouths about the matter. All that is not the actual story, the real story begins when I point out that some hacker found a way to beat this whole system,  one that must have cost Sony upwards of nearly $100 million(including the recalls I suppose), by simply marking a particular area of the disc with a permanent marker! So much for Copy-Protection’.

The most laughable part of this entire story is the ‘time, money and effort’ that these companies invest into that wild-goose chase(oh did I offend somebody, i meant the quest for that Holy Grail) called ‘perfect copy protection’ mechanism. I fail to understand why these companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars to invent such a system, because even theoretically there can be no such system that can be economically implemented. Not with any amount of specialised tools they might claim to utilise.

The only way to prevent most of the possible ‘casual copyers’  is through a  combination oh hardware AND software, something that the ‘payers’ would vehemently object to. You can’t expect somebody who wants a music CD to also buy your player that is specially configured to protect YOUR interest, by making the consumer throw AWAY their player which was perfectly fine in the first place(oh dear me, how could it be perfect when it didn’t enforce your rights). It is like expecting a customer who wants a new saddle for his horse, to also buy a horse from you, because you only want your saddles to be used on horses to be sold by you. It can be done, as Apple has proved, with their OS, by purposely making it run only on hardware that they sell, effectively forcing a hardware/software combo on the consumer, and look at how much market share they occupy. The industry obviously recognises this, and hence never tries to enforce such a combination on the consumer. However, why they spend those hundreds of millions of dollars per year, on copy-protection measures is beyond my limited mind.

I don’t understand why they think those 100 or 200 hundred people who are ‘hired’ and ‘work for money’, and only seek to get out to home the moment their 9 hours or whatever the stipulated time on the job is finished, can design a ‘system’ (that thousands of people who work day and night as a challenge, free of cost with only one objective of beating that ‘system’), that cannot be beaten. I fail to see the logic of investing those millions on a system designed by a handful, which will surely be worked upon my thousands if not millions to see who has the upper hand. So far I fail to find one area where the industry has gained, and I mean gained respectably good lead on the competition for quite a period of time(some years). if anyone from the industry or their lackeys are reading this, I request you to point me one such example, and I would be glad to accept that probably hackers haven’t concentrated hard enough on it.

For that matter I would like to point one of the most ingenious methods being secretly implemented online, to curb the menace of piracy on many video/audio hosting sites. Allow me to present the hope of all those YouTube clones out there, AudibleMagic. For those uninitiated to the technology world, it might seem like a ideal solution you could sell to a Texas ranger(I know one bright enough to buy it, he currently live in the FFFFFF House), claiming it could prevent his cattle from being unauthorisedly replicated, after all many believe cloning is unethical apart from being illegal.

Anyway my personal feelings aside, the concept they proposed can be simply explained as a method where the content-owners(read ‘Industry’) presented the Host service with a ‘fingerprint’ of all their content(meaning a kind of identification device, for example audio is in the form of a wave, so a method of saving that wave shape information in a fingerprint file, or for example video is in the form of frames, so a method of saving the frame information in a fingerprint file), and the host has the responsibility to scan every file before it is uploaded and compare it with the fingerprint database, if anything matches, it is to be taken down. In the meantime, the ‘industry’ has been given a free hand to examine existing content already hosted, and ‘claim’ their content which will then be taken down.

To the casual observer, it sounds like the death knell of all those free album videos/movies they used to see online courtesy of Google & Co..However it took me all of five minutes to devise a way to beat the ‘system’.  I can challenge anyone in the industry it will probably take somebody who knew programming with my help, only one single day, to  even write an application to  take advantage of this crack. Anyway, the point I wanted to make is that if an amateur theoretical hacker like me can crack something that sites like Soapbox and Youtube are paying millions of Dollars for, it definitely proves two things, firstly, those who are more professionally into it than me, can definitely do much much better, and secondly, the industry is really being run by ‘imbeciles’ who don’t seem to even know how to burn money properly.

It would be nice to simply end the whole topic saying “don’t try such stupid things as stopping the pirates, it is impossible”. However there are a couple of more things I would like to draw your attention to. Firstly, an age-old idiom, about “the pot calling the kettle black”. Readers might find this link of interest, about one of the pioneers of ‘Copy-Protection‘ in the ‘industry’.

Having said that, the last thing I wanted to say in this piece, is those who have been waiting for that supposedly ‘magical’ solution for all this mess. Your wait just got extended by a week. It is only next week that I will be posting my version of the solution. So have a long week ahead.

On Piracy

Having spoken briefly on Copyright in my previous post(my writeup was brief, afraid I can’t say so of the linked articles), it is but natural to speak about the after-effects of the issue. Rarely do the after-effects of an issue overshadow the issue itself, atleast not since Archduke Ferdinand had been shot did the aftermath of an event overshadow the event itself. Today we seem to have accepted the 21st Century equivalent of such an occurrence, ‘Piracy’.

Like I have written in the earlier post, the concept of Copyright itself is highly debatable, and therefore it is funny to observe, one floor after another being built on a building without a base, even if it was a virtual castle-in-the-air. It makes me wonder how the ‘Industry’ people could make such a hue and cry about piracy when the concept on which piracy is based, namely, original copyright, is itself without proper foundation. Having a legal foundation doesn’t make it any more acceptable, as having a law that freely permits the killing of any fellow-citizens.

Claiming piracy based merely on a Copyright is like an illegal tenant complaining about the leaking roof. In the first place the tenant wasn’t even supposed to be living in that house. To live illegally is one thing, but to complain as if one owned the place is a completely different thing, and an intolerable one at that. Presently right off my mind, there are three such things that baffle me about this whole ‘Piracy’ issue.

First, the concept of equating piracy with theft. This one begins to get me smiling one of my best smiles, usually reserved for the para-normal jokes. Accepting such a belief would bring two possibilities into play. One, Copyrighted material specially the intangible ones are the equivalent of physical property. Two, they aren’t so. Let us consider the first probability, if such material could actually be ‘stolen’, that would leave the original owners with no possession of it. Which would mean that to actually file a complaint of theft, they would have to stop selling further copies themselves, since they don’t have any, remember, their copy was stolen. Which, given the current circumstances seem contradictory. So it seems theory number one doesn’t work out after all.

Let’s therefore assume, for now, that Theory Two, of it not being equal to physical property being true, implying therefore that it couldn’t have been stolen, in which case, the whole discussion of ‘piracy and ‘theft’ would all seem a greater joke, worthy of only those who have infinite time at their disposal. I would just like to get this one over with, by stating, if by any chance the entire ‘industry’ is run by mentally retarded people, please wake up to the fact that to equate piracy with theft, you must either have it or you mustn’t. You can’t claim somebody stole your material and then go about selling it to someone else, UNLESS the originally stolen one is retrieved from the ‘thief’. If you assume you can, what are you selling the next person, a counterfeit, isn’t that also piracy?

Second, the concept of having ownership over an unspecified, unlimited number of copies. This one starts to get me laughing, hope readers don’t mind my laughing in public. In my life, I have heard quite a number of wonderful claims, people walking on water etc. etc., but nothing as wildly closely to fantasy, as this one. Reminds me of a miser who is reported to have claimed “If only I could count the number of houses I have, I would have been a Maths Professor.” I don’t see much difference between the two. This concept is an extension of the first, wherein not only do the persons/organisations believe that they own a form of knowledge which is equivalent to physical property, they also assume that they have infinite number of these items, an inexhaustible store, the imperishable supply ready to meet a non-existent demand. To get a fair idea of the same, just imagine owning vast, immeasurable tracts of land stretching across planets and galaxies, probably a gazillion acres of land, now upon this gazillion acres of land you own, throw in a few trillion buildings for good measure, after all it can’t hurt to be any more wealthier than that. Now comes the icing on this gadzillion cake, supposing you could stake claim to all of this by walking into a Copyright office and paying a few thousand Rupees as the consideration for this inter-planetary contract. Doesn’t it illuminate what a wonderfully sane world of Copyright we are living in.

To simplify it, for those ‘industry’ imbeciles that I talked of earlier, it would mean, make up your mind, about how much many copies you exactly ‘own'(assume any number, 1 trillion, 50000 trillion, only remember, you can only sell so many, if for example, you said 1 trillion, and you accused one person of ‘pirating’ one copy, then you could legally sell only 999,999,999,999 copies yourself, since one is stolen). Now once you have done that lets move on to the next aspect of this comedy, numbers, ones you publish in conjunction with your ever ready to please ‘media’, for example readers will find it interesting to read about this ‘estimate‘ by the Indian Music Industry. I am not quite sure who writes/approves the accounts for these Industry people, but I am definitely sure of one thing, I definitely wouldn’t want be to be employed by such a firm. I guess even an elementary grade economist/accountant would know that there are two important elements in a transaction of sale, the sale price and the cost of manufacture, the difference between the two is what makes up the profit/loss to the seller. I take it that the industry is dumb enough to call multiplying Rs.150 or Rs.200 per CD * 10 Million CD’s(pirated) as the figure to project as losses(both to the Government and itself). I do not mind such estimate, if only I could be more sure of the cost part of it. Could the industry tell me how much of these 1500/2000 million Rupees, has it actually ‘invested’ to ‘lose’?

To illustrate further, lets assume you have set up a 10×4 shop to sell flowers, and stocked it with flowers from your garden, with an intention to sell. Lets assume somebody else has also set up shop beside yours to sell flowers he has plucked from your garden,(obviously without your permission), at a price grossly below the price you are selling. What exactly is the quantum of your loss, is it the amount of money that the other guy makes on selling your flowers, is it the amount of stock you have unsold in your shop because nobody bought your flowers and preferred his instead, or is it the amount you have invested in growing the flowers in your garden? That is only the first question, the second being, will your answer change in a scenario where, this person seems to have exhausted all the flowers in your garden, and is seemingly plucking flowers out of the air above your garden, or maybe putting all those flowers illegally plucked into a replicator and multiplying them, or probably even worse for the consumer, he’s putting all those flowers onto a photocopying machine and delivering the copies to newer consumers. In such a scenario, would your losses magnify to a photocopied exponential level? Oh, pardon my poor memory, I seem to have forgotten that your garden itself is inexhaustible, the moment you pluck a flower, your plant immediately spawns a new flower to take its place, so that it is ready to be plucked from again. In which case, could those people auditing the books of these ‘magical gardening’ firms please tell me, what should be considered as the amount of loss?

Third, the concept of losing revenue from somebody who was never their customer in the first place. This again is an extension of the second concept, readers will obviously appreciate the link between the three concepts when I get to the end of this paragraph. This one makes me break into a guffaw, and I am sure I know atleast one person who is not pleased to see me guffawing. This one deals with their view on those who ‘distribute’ free copies of their works. A worser kind you might say, atleast the other florist was charging something, which could help us quantify numbers to publish, how do we quantify numbers for something that is given away as free? What the hell, write up the entire amount as a loss, makes for a prettier picture of sympathy than the best soap opera. Having set up a competitive shop as a florist, can you lose revenue from the mere fact that there existed somebody who never intended to pay for anybody’s flowers, but was nevertheless, looking to place flowers in his flower vase. If such a person was also a criminal, which crime was he chargeable for, the crime of having the right not to buy a product, or the crime of not paying for the product, that was auto-spawned by God’s grace in your field?

This concept accuses those who approach either those who have bought products from either the ‘Authorised Florist’ or his ‘illegal’ competitor, and request them to put these flowers that they have ‘paid’ for into a replicator/photocopier, and take the resultant output to enjoy for themselves. Wait a minute, didn’t the farmer/florist spend a lot of trouble engineering a magical hybrid flower that auto-spawned itself to give him a botanical version of the ‘golden goose’? Didn’t he pay a princely sum of a few thousand Rupees to the local Policeman to stay at his farm full-time and ensure nobody pluck his flowers, and also pay for the right to drag those who didn’t buy these ‘magical’ flowers from him, as also those who didn’t buy them from anybody but nevertheless managed to get their hands on one, without plucking them from his garden(that’s the problem with creating magical varieties you see), into Court, where a Magistrate whose four generations of grandsons were probably supported and taken care of with that princely sum of a few thousand that the farmer/florist paid the Government(don’t forget to also count the Grandsons of the Policeman) to deliver swift and merciless ‘Justice’ in favour of the farmer/florist, and make threatenigly sure in future the defendant bought flowers only from the farmer/florist and ‘paid in full’ for them. How can the Government let anybody and everybody make clones of these ‘Golden Goose’ flowers when somebody(the farmer/florist) had already paid them to expressly disallow the same?

I guess, some things are never meant to be covered all at once, or rather some meals are too large to be finished in one sitting. So that brings me to end this article, hoping atleast one ‘industry’ person has been able to light his candle. For those of you who were waiting to see my supposedly ‘magical’ solution for all this ‘maniacal auto-spawning flowering plants’ business, I must apologise for not being able to provide the same right now, in this article as promised, that honour(or should I say disgrace, well I shall let you decide) is reserved probably for the next article “On Anti-Piracy”(let me hope that one doesn’t drag on like this one did, forcing me to write another article specially for this purpose, probably titled “On Solving All This Mess”, or maybe that is a good idea after all)

On Copyright

In a fair world, everybody would be equal and have equal rights and opportunities. In a fair world, everybody would be owners, since it would be ‘fair’ of workers to expect their share of the profits made from their efforts. But we do not live in a fair world, nor anything close to it. The environment that society has modelled us into, that we have allowed ourselves get modelled into, understands to a certain extent the unfairness that exists around us, and therefore tries to address that in ways that often leading to the increase in unfairness. One such term for the condition we have brought ourselves into, is ‘Copyright’.

Like the very term itself means literally, it is a system to curb a person’s right to replication of data, and place the authority of the same with another person/organisation. This way, that one person/organisation can get to decide who gets to copy and who doesn’t, as also the obvious, how much do they need to pay to do the same. It is a system approved by society(I won’t say devised, because that it was not) whether actively or passively(like most of us who are guilty of not objecting to its existence) to enable few people to benefit by exploiting the majority of the population into surrendering their right to have a say in the democratic world that they were led to believe they lived in.

There have been a lot of things said about this issue by a lot of people more qualified than me to speak on the subject, from among which, I would like to bring to your notice the following two, What’s Wrong With Copy Protection and The Absurdity of Copyright. While these two articles between them cover almost everything I had wanted to say on the topic, there are a two points left out that I would like to highlight on(the first has already been covered in the article but not given much prominence).

The first problem with copyright is that it encourages inefficiency by encouraging persons/organisations that supposedly function in a free-market system, to subvert that very system, effectively making them socialists in a capital market. The first case in point being that copyright protects substandard works of creativity, since creative works of a high standard don’t require as much rigid protection as copyrighted works do. For example, if the formula to prepare Coca-Cola was known to everybody or was anyway easily decipherable, everybody would have their own soda-pop machines at home dishing out a cocktail nearly as good as, or even better than Coca-Cola. The fact that such a thing hasn’t happened goes to show the inherent security that the product itself bestows on the manufacturer. This means that Coca-Cola not only gets to have a headstart over the rest of the market, because it is the market, it creates the market, it also gets sufficient time to think of other new products to replace the possibility of this one product’s manufacturability becoming common knowledge.

If, for example instead, lots of people could come up with Coca-Cola clones, every restaurant and eatery would be selling their version of the drink, like the case is with pubs and beers. The point being that if the idea is so common that anybody could have thought of it, then it obviously doesn’t deserve the protection that is accorded to it merely because somebody got to the Copyright Office quicker, with a probably half-baked concept. There are thousands of pubs that brew their own beer, and they have co-existed for centuries with bigger breweries that churn out the same products on a much larger scale, simply because the beer breweries don’t have any insecurity against the thousands of pubs that dish out the same product. They are confident that with the measures they have taken, in terms of publicity, product reach, uniformity of product quality and pricing, they still have a particular section of the market for themselves. That is what is called thriving in a free-market. Coca-Cola knows that by sheer product superiority it can survive in the market, and so doesn’t actually need protection from the law. The problem begins with those whose products are not good enough to stand up on their own merits who demand and enforce protection provided by the law, meaning that if somebody had come up with a drink say, merely mixing water with lemon, it would be obvious that anybody else could replicate that since it is not rocket science in the first place. It is such a person who runs to the law seeking protection for a product that is not worthy of such a gross misinterpretation of the intentions of the law.

The second problem with copyright is that it subverts the free-market process and eliminates competition, often to the detriment of the general public. The fact that a company has released a product first, obviously implies the fact that they have got a headstart on the rest of the market, because in the first place they are the entire market until the next competitor comes in. Which itself is the reward for their efforts of coming into the market ahead of the rest. Where copyright fails is to take into account the fact that once a competitor steps in, it means that there are others who have also realised how to replicate the same process. From then on, competition is supposed to be about free-play of the market factors, namely, promotion, awareness, availability, price, quality, service etc. In the copyright era, all of that is eliminated because one person only is allowed to manufacture that product, irrespective of whether customers can get the same product from somebody else at a lower price, or at a better quality. That is only one part of the problems with granting copyright. The real problems begin after that. Even if during the tenure of the copyright, the holder takes no steps to improve upon it or rectify inherent defects in the product, the consumers cannot do anything about it, especially if the product/service has become an almost inseparable part of their lives. Even if during the tenure, other manufacturers develop a much more efficient product, or a more better-featured product, the general consumer is denied full benefit of the same.

In the first place, those who claim a copyright have themselves based their work on other forms of knowledge which is in the public domain. Even if they based their works on other copyrighted works whose permission/licence they have taken, those copyrighted source works can also have their origins traced to knowledge that has always been in the public domain, free for all. The entire concept can be represented with the example of a river. Some hitchhiker who happens to be thirsty after a long climb comes across the river, and wishes he had a way to take the water with him wherever he went instead of having to wait till he got to the river to quench his thirst. So he spends time, effort and money and invents what he calls a bottle. he pours the water into it, and presto, he has a product ready to sell. If that was all there was to the matter, it wouldn’t be of any concern to anybody, especially not to the general public. The trouble begins when he approaches the Copyright Office and gets a declaration in his favour stating nobody else could fill water into bottles and sell it, or worser still, nobody could fill water from the river into anything, nobody could use river water, nobody could look at the river without explicit prior written permission of His Highness the hitchhiker. That is what copyright does to the world of invention. Takes something from the public domain, develops a new concept based on it, then forbids anybody else from doing the same, or improving upon the same.

Although there are a lot more things bad about the copyright system, most of these have already been covered in the above-mentioned articles. However I am not the one to publicly criticise anything, whatever my personal private misgivings on the matter unless I have a reasonable alternative to the object of my criticism. The alternative to the copyright regime will be suggested in the next post which has received equal if not more prominence recently than copyright, namely, piracy. Since the two concepts are so inter-related, I believe the solution must also address piracy as a concern for copyright-holders, if any effective solution must be found. Hence you can look forward to my little contribution to this global debate over right and wrong, in the next post, “On Piracy”. Unlike most other debaters, I only ridicule the opposition when I have a reasonable replacement for the existing system, which I believe I may have in this case. So looking forward to a lot of criticism for this maniacal approach to creativity, as also to suggestions to improve the alternatives I suggest.

On Knowledge

Knowledge. The original reason for this blog. I need not say anything about knowledge because the word itself completes its sentence. What I however need to write about, is free, the purpose of this blog. Put the two together, and what you get, is free knowledge. It all started in a very small way, back in 2002. There was a couplet of Bartruhari in our Sanskrit textbook, that left a lasting impression on my mind. I cannot obviously type the Devanagri version here properly, and so I make do with providing the simplest English translation of it;

“Oh Goddess of Knowledge, how wonderful is your wealth,
It multiplies on spending, and perishes when hoarded.”

It left me thinking of the nature of knowledge as a commodity, being an Economics student then. I found that the concept of spending leading to increased economic activity held more truth for knowledge than economics.This kindled in me the desire to make sure that whatever knowledge I had gained was passed on freely to anyone who was interested in the same. After all, almost all of the knowledge I got was almost for free, and just because I paid for the rest of it doesn’t mean everybody else has to. I probably paid for that portion of my knowledge because I could afford to, what of those who cannot afford to, should they be denied the knowledge because they are too poor for it?

Is knowledge a privilege of the rich? Is knowledge an asset only of those creative? These thoughts led me to determine to spend some part of my life advocating the cause of spreading knowledge freely to all that seek it. A knowledge without ownership, a knowledge without cost.

For society to improve and develop, there are two things that fundamentally hinder progress. The lack of new developments, and the lack of awareness of existent knowledge. It is my belief that if the second is worked upon, it most often leads to improvement in the first. That way both improve, leading to an improvement of society as a whole. Unfortunately, the people who can impart the existent knowledge have put many a barriers, some of them formidable, between knowledge and the common man. I was at a loss, about how to counter the tide.

It was then that I heard of the OSI and FOSS. Needless to say, I began to try and replace every piece of software I used with an Open Source alternative, and began recommending(actually forcibly pushing) ones that I had used to a lot of my friends and acquaintances. I began converting a lot of my friends to atleast try out OS-OS(Open Source – Operating Systems) and then take a decision. Some have, some haven’t, but atleast the effort was worth it.

The reason I went about doing this was quite simple. Freedom and Development. Having the source that makes an application frees you from having to wait for the original developer to release patches and fix bugs, something you could yourself do if you knew how. Having the source lets you make improvements to the code yourself, to suit your requirements and sensibilities, and helps bring in more advanced customisations to he product itself. Having the source, helps bring in a thousand more people to work on the project, thus bringing in far better features and improvisations, ultimately leading to the benefit of every user.

While I still continue this effort even today, I was feeling bad that all this had to do with software. All this talk about open source, was for programs that could be only run on pieces of silicon. What about that vast ocean of knowledge that isn’t in the domain called software? What about setting it all free? This fire was specially kindled, when from time to time, recently I happened to come across many of my friends’ blogs that stated terms like ‘Creative Commons‘ and ‘CopyScape‘. I did my usual search on them and found them to be theoretically free, almost to the last bit, but then, not completely. They still had those last vestiges of restraints on them.

It was at such a juncture, that I happened to come across LibreKnowledge a few days back. In fact it was this discovery that turned my procrastination into action. I immediately set about designing a logo for all those who were free, those who wished to spread knowledge freely without any shackles, something that those who support LibreKnowledge would be proud to display, proud to be a part of. And so began this blog. A place for all those who wish to give away, the fruits of their efforts, because they feel the work itself was the reward.

More details about the logo or concept itself can be found on the Seekers page.