The upside of plagiarism and why copying won’t die

BY R Jagannathan| IN Media Practice | 04/11/2010
Plagiarism is the ultimate form of flattery. You think something is so good that you want to call it your own. But copying has economic spinoffs.
It enables the poor to counter inequality by stealing from the rich, whether it is by pirating software or replicating success formulae, says R JAGANNATHAN
                                                    Courtesy: DNA
Now that the buzz has died down, it is time to sit back and look at the whole issue of plagiarism with fresh eyes. I’m sure Aroon Purie, editor-in-chief of India Today, is truly embarrassed that his lines on Rajinikant were “lifted” from Grady Hendrix’s article in Grady, for his part, has extracted the last ounce of juice from Purie’s discomfiture and subsequent apology, so much so that there is an entire column in Slate devoted to it. Not only did he closely dissect the apology for elements of contrition (Grady’s verdict: it wasn’t much of an apology), he was cock-a-hoop about it.
Grady protests too much. He is the one true beneficiary in all this, for plagiarism is the ultimate form of flattery. When you quote somebody’s work and attribute it to him or her, you are merely acknowledging the source. But when you lift a passage out of someone’s myriad outpourings and pass it off as your own, you are paying him the ultimate tribute. You find the lines so good that you wish you had written it yourself.
This is not an invitation to Indians to copy someone else’s intellectual output with a clear conscience. We Indians have to learn to respect copyright, as we are too blasé about stealing. But plagiarism does have real (positive) spinoffs: it speeds up the spread of knowledge at the cost of slightly retarding innovation.
IPR (intellectual property rights) is a relatively recent development for humans, probably less a few hundred years old. All through history, humans have copied - and copied copiously - whenever they found an idea worth emulating or adopting. Human progress was built on the fact that a good thought or idea belongs to everybody. Every civilisation has copied another’s myths and stories, every holy book has borrowed passages from others (the Bible from Jewish traditions, the Koran from the Bible and elsewhere, the Gita from Buddhist literature, and Sikhism from both Hinduism and Islam).
The point is: humans are nowhere as innovative as we think we are. We are as willing to copy as to think new and different. When Europeans colonised America , they couldn’t think of names beyond “New” York , or “New” Orleans . Apple’s latest offering is unimaginatively called the iPad, when there are a dozen other products with the same name. Having thought up the prefix ‘i’ of iPod fame, Apple became too lazy to think beyond it.
The English language rules the world precisely because it plagiarised words from every other language it came in contact with. Apart from Hindi and Urdu, the Brits borrowed from Tamil and other Indian languages, too. For example, the words “rice” and “catamaran” are Tamil in origin, derived from arisi and kattumaram.
Business has boomed because of plagiarism. The Indian pharma industry has been built on the basis of reverse engineering: the original molecule may have been discovered elsewhere, but Indian companies reworked it and made it their own. India would never have become an IT superpower without copying. Entire generations of Indians were brought up on the idea that software is free as long as you can copy it. Hollywood regularly complains that Bollywood is swiping its themes without so much as a thank you note, but this criticism cuts no ice in Mumbai’s film world because that is what they do themselves: superhits in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu are freely copied and built upon. The Indian attitude to copying is that if there is a good idea, it is a crime not to replicate it. Indians cannot be accused of falling prey to the “not invented here” syndrome.
Back home we see plagiarism even in the political space. Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena has made snide remarks about his nephew’s tendency to copy his mannerisms and style. The Sonias and Rahul Gandhis of the world are living on the brand equity of previous generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family.
Japan never invented anything beyond the keiretsu; even it’s famed kaizen and lean production systems – which saved on cost and ensured quality - were invented by Edward Deming and Joseph Juran. Japan ’s success till the 1990s was built on copying western products and miniaturising and improving them. China has entire legions of citizens employed in industrial espionage even today. The west is not beyond plagiarism either: Indian products like basmati, haldi, neem and yoga have been subjects of patent litigation.
If the growth stories of Japan , China and India have been built substantially on aping the developed world, we need to draw a simple conclusion: IPR is the refuge of the rich, while copying is beneficial to the poor. 
It has been said before, that piracy is the market’s answer to overpricing. The only answer to overpricing is “free”. This is what a Linux does to Microsoft with its free enterprise software and operating systems. The dilemma is this: IPR needs protection if we have to promote innovation and originality. But economics dictates that IPR cannot be as highly valued as it currently is. Plagiarism is a mixed blessing.

The author is the executive editor of DNA.

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