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Posters for Ekta Kapoor’s Mangalyaan Series Don’t Show ISRO Rockets – Why it Matters

Posters for Ekta Kapoor’s Mangalyaan Series Don’t Show ISRO Rockets – Why it Matters

ISRO, Indian Space Research Organisation, Mangalyaan, Mars Orbiter Mission, Chandrayaan 2, Chandrayaan 1, PSLV XL, GSLV, NASA, European Space Agency, SpaceX Falcon 9, GODL license, National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, Wikimedia Commons, Flickr Commons, Minnie Vaid, Ekta Kapoor, Mission Mangal,

Bengaluru: Have you seen the GSLV Mk II? It’s one good looking rocket. It’s almost 50 m tall, has a sleek body, four L40 boosters on the first-stage and a cryogenic upper stage. Though the GSLV Mk I looks similar, its cryogenic upper stage was powered by a Russian engine. The Mk II is more ‘Made in India’ that way, which seems to matter to so many people these days, with an India-made cryogenic engine at the top.

This is just one reason the new posters for the TV show called M.O.M. – The Women Behind Mission Mangal, produced by Ekta Kapoor and distributed by AltBalaji, look strange. Released on June 7, one poster shows four women, presumably the show’s protagonists, flanking a large rocket in the centre that appears to be a Russian Soyuz launcher. Another shows their faces lined up over an ascending NASA Space Shuttle. However, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had launched the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) in November 2013 with a PSLV rocket in its XL configuration.


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Kapoor wrote on her Instagram post, “This show is on the women who sent the mission [to] Mars – partly fictional keeping in mind the sacrosanct nature of ISRO. This is by far one of the most inspirational stories I have ever heard after millions of meetings with ISRO and a certain amount of sacrosanct secrecy that they would like us to maintain.” It would be reasonable to assume then that, after “millions of meetings”, Kapoor and her production team knew what the rockets actually looked like.

Update: At around 4:30 pm on June 12, AltBalaji issued a statement to The Wire saying that the show is a fictional adaptation and that, as a result, it is “legally bound not to use actual names or images of the people, objects or agencies involved”. The note added that “publicity material” of the show was designed with their “contractual obligations in mind”.

When asked why the show then used the official acronym – MOM – a spokesperson stated that it stood for “Mission Over Mars”, not ‘Mars Orbiter Mission’ as was supposed.

The GODL license

‘Sacrosanct’ is a troubling word because it should have no place where public outreach is important. In most other circumstances, and in keeping with its storied attitude towards public outreach, ISRO is simply not interested in publicising its achievements. This is why MOM was significant in more ways than one: its launch marked the sole occasion when ISRO insiders engaged in any significant public engagement – online and off; one group of space scientists even organised a Q&A session on Reddit.

Additionally, MOM was a technology demonstration mission; its primary objective was, and remains, to get into orbit around Mars, which it did in September 2014. So it is curious what its maker would like to be secretive about, especially as a civilian space organisation, when its more accessible peers NASA and the European Space Agency can tell you exactly what technologies would have to be used to get into orbit around Mars.

However, beyond the claims in Kapoor’s own post, there is a larger issue centred on confusion over reuse rights on images published by ISRO. For example, American federal law denies copyright to all images obtained by NASA’s instruments (a stipulation that leads to some tension in the 2015 film The Martian). On the other hand, India does not have a similarly free-ranging, and mandated, formal works-of-government exception to copyright.

Some images that ISRO has uploaded into the Wikimedia Commons library sport a Government Open Data License (GODL), published in 2017, with the following explanatory note:

Following the mandate of the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy (NDSAP) of Government of India that applies to all shareable non-sensitive data available either in digital or analog forms but generated using public funds by various agencies of the Government of India, all users are provided a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive license to use, adapt, publish (either in original, or in adapted and/or derivative forms), translate, display, add value, and create derivative works (including products and services), for all lawful commercial and non-commercial purposes, and for the duration of existence of such rights over the data or information.

The NDSAP was advanced in 2012, so there are no ISRO images in the library from before that year. Additionally, Shashank Govindaraju, a senior associate at Factum Law, Bengaluru, said that the terms of this license elevate the images into the public domain. However, he acknowledged a difference from a jurisprudential point of view. “Imagine you own a house and you let your friend stay there. You still own the house but you are letting your friend have a free ride.” Similarly, “By retaining copyright, it enables [the government] to modify the terms of the license.”

If the images had been in the public domain, on the other hand, AltBalaji or any other producer for that matter could still have banked on the popularity of ISRO’s launch vehicles – and added to it in turn – without having to borrow from Russian and American albums.

Third, the GODL requires a clunky attribution format that might have been more at home in the academic literature:

[Name of Data Provider], [Year of Publication], [Name of Data], [Name of Data Repository/Website], [Version Number and/or Date of Publication (dd/mm)], [DOI / URL / URI]. Published under [Name of License]: [URL of License].

Finally, the number of images that are available with the GODL license and the NDSAP’s protection, at least on the Wikimedia Commons, is low. This is understandable since the act of uploading official images to the library seems to be discretionary; there appears to be no policy that mandates ISRO to ensure all its images are made available in this manner. A similar qualification is not visible on the ISRO website either, but its ‘terms of use’ clearly states:

The copyright of the material of ISRO contained in this website belongs to and remains solely with ISRO. If any user is interested to use the material of ISRO featured in this Website, then, the user is required to take the permission from ISRO.

One consequence of these factors has been that ISRO imagery just hasn’t been all over the internet the way visuals from NASA missions have been. For example, NASA images, GIFs and videos in the Wikimedia Commons and Flickr Commons libraries are either completely in the public domain, free of all copyright, or have a Creative Commons Attributions license (a.k.a. CC BY). In fact, many images of Indian missions, including two of the INSAT 1B (here and here), have been attributed to NASA and are completely in the public domain.

A suitable rocket

As it happens, media materials produced by Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, seem to be limited by restricted access, with multiple caveats about how such materials may be used. The Japanese Space Agency also provides restricted access, while the European Space Agency is more relaxed, though not entirely.

It is not obvious what the issue with placing all ISRO images, even if not all data, explicitly in the public domain would be. The counterargument that it would exacerbate misinformation, and fake news, is irredeemably flawed, as the NDSAP’s text itself confirms. Without access to these resources, and more importantly the clarity on their use/reuse, ISRO merchandise is virtually non-existent.

Setting aside the need to be ‘sacrosanct’ about anything, Leslee Lazar, a neuroscientist and visual artist, said, “The MOM show might not be angling for accuracy, but they should have been careful as rockets are the central theme, apart from the women. They could have easily got an illustrator to represent the correct ISRO rockets.”

Minnie Vaid, Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines, Speaking Tiger, 2019
Minnie Vaid
Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines
Speaking Tiger, 2019

In fact, the cover of Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines, a 2019 book about ISRO’s women scientists by the author and journalist Minnie Vaid, shows a non-ISRO rocket on its cover. It looks like the Soyuz but it is painted like the PSLV, in alternating bands of white and deep red. A diminutive credit-line at the back of the book says the photos of Mars on the front and back covers are from ISRO and the “satellite” was the work of illustrator R.C. Prakash.

Given that a photograph of the PSLV C25’s launch is available on Wikimedia Commons under the GODL license, it is not clear why Speaking Tiger chose to commission their own image of a launcher. Renuka Chatterjee, its vice-president of publishing, told The Wire on June 14, “The cover of Minnie Vaid’s book is [illustrative], and so we didn’t do an exact representation of the actual rocket. Yes, it was for design purposes only.”

So on the one hand, we have an organisation that, actively or passively, has been pinching the supply of processed and unprocessed data into the public domain. On the other, we appear to have a demand for stories revolving around this data but which is accompanied by a strange (thus far, at least) reluctance to want to use that data when the opportunity presents itself. Perhaps even more importantly, neither group seems to mind – at least not publicly – so are we to believe there is even a problem here?

Note: This article was updated on June 12, 2019, at 4:38 pm to include AltBalaji’s clarification and modified to remove Prateep Basu’s quote, and on June 14, 2019, to include Speaking Tiger’s response.

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