Sunday, December 04, 2005

Plagiarism, double standards, bloggers and self-interest

Lately the Indian blogosphere has gone hammer and tongs after plagiarism. Journalists and film reviewers are at the receiving end of bloggers’ wrath and sense of indignation. The recent expose of the reviewer Gautaman Bhaskaran from the Hindu left a bitter taste in many readers’ mouths.

While everyone was ranting about the great wrongs that were being committed in the name of journalism, Suyog had a very different take on the issue. He questioned whether our indignation was justified. Whether bloggers ought to have reacted as strongly as they did? He presents an interesting and definitely a thought provoking perspective. I must commend his courage in having the honesty and the balls to write what he wrote knowing the prevalent mood in the blogosphere. We definitely need to challenge our views and not reinforce them by reading similar perspectives and for helping that cause, hats off to Suyog. Despite this, I will argue from a purely self-interest point of view -- plagiarism, at least in the mainstream media will always be a big deal.

Suyog raises the following pertinent points: -

  • Anu Malik has lifted innumerable tunes for his movies; so what did you do? Stop listening to his music altogether? Did you mail him and ask him to stop getting inspired? Because the music was plagiarised, did it stop you from buying the CD of Murder because you loved the song “Kaho Na Kaho?”
  • Most Bollywood movies are inspired by Hollywood. So if Munnabhai M.B.B.S was inspired Patch Adams, would it make Munnabhai a less enjoyable or a less better film? Once you discovered it was inspired, did you decide not to watch it at all? Did you Blog about it?
  • You know all too well that you most Tommy Hilfigers you get in India are fake, didn’t you? Did it stop you from buying them? Did you mail the maker or the textile company about shamelessly copying Tommy’s designs?
  • Most drugs and medicines in India are more or less variants of the drugs made after considerable research in United States – and that is why India is now having newer laws on drugs and medicines. So, what do you call Crocin or Anacin? An “inspired” drug? Will you stop having it if you are sick?
  • Did you hear that Chinese versions of Energizer batteries work just as well and sell for three times cheaper. You wouldn’t buy it would you?

To this litany I would add that many of the bloggers who blogged about this issue may have been using pirated version of Windows, MS Office and Photoshop not to mention numerous games, and must have hundreds of MP3 songs on their hard disks for which they haven’t paid a paisa to the producers. After reading this, his question seems almost rhetorical, “Is plagiarism really that big a deal?” According to Suyog, in other cases we have learnt to live with such copying and stealing. Over a period of time we have gotten desensitized. He further argues that in near future it wouldn’t matter if a journalist or a blogger plagiarises.

The point is this: Plagiarizing is frankly not that big an issue as it is made out to be through Blog journalism; one just needs to think a little bit beyond the obvious and see that originality as a concept itself is very rare; everything else is more or less plagiarised of one thing.

What he has said applies perfectly to the 'media' that he has cited. I would pose the same question that he asked. Why don't bloggers protest in the above instances, but do so in case of newspapers? If one looks at this ethically (and there is definitely a case for looking at this ethically), the bloggers will fall flat on their faces because of the double standards they adopt. But instead of tackling this by saying that we adopt double standards and should rectify them before we attack anyone else, I think, an interesting question to dwell upon would be, what induces us to adopt these double standards. By dismissing people who protest at plagiarism in news media as people who 'don't see the point' is premature.

Relationship between mainstream news media and readers
What is it that infuriates us when we see plagiarised content in mainstream media? The key word here is media. Suyog’s argument is self-serving because of the broad brush he uses to paint the media. We need to discriminate (pun intended) between the news media and entertainment media. Plagiarising, getting inspired, lifting off etc. will never be tolerated by the public in the mainstream news media. Plagiarism, when it comes to news media (unlike other entertainment media such as films, serials, advertising etc.) is a serious issue because the prime relationship between the news media and the reader/viewer/listener is of trust. We trust the ToI's, Indian Expresses' and Hindu's of this world far more than any film director, musician or cloth maker. The currency in which the public trades with the mainstream media is trust. It is because of this relationship that we buy a particular newspaper or watch a specific news channel.

Consider this. You invest some money into a bank. Later you find out the bank manager starts giving away loans to his friends without mortgage. When you quiz him about it he says, "What's the big deal. Don't you help your friends? Do you protest when others are helping their friends? And so what's wrong when I do it?" What's wrong here is that you expect a certain responsibility on that person's part. The bank is making money because of your trust. Your relationship with the bank is based on trust just like with the newspapers’.

We lend them certain power on our (citizens of a democracy’s) behalf so that news media inform us about the current events and happenings truthfully, first hand and without bias to help us make wise decisions in our personal life. Readers expect the news media to give them as close a picture of reality as they can. For this the journalist has to be closer to reality. Talk to real people, work hard to get phone numbers, discuss with experts from different walks of life. Only then can he/she present us the true picture, not by plagiarising.

In contrast, you beget no loss in any form when you watch plagiarised films, and listen to plagiarised music. Sometimes you knowingly choose to view a film or listen to music knowing that it is plagiarised. In these instances there is a financial gain in such a transaction for you. For instance, when you buy a Chinese made battery or a purchase fake Tommy Hilfiger pant or buy pirated software. So it is to your benefit and therefore you do not protest. (I must state that this does not mean that I support the above things. I am just pointing out the facts and that even the ones who lament hypocrisy are hypocrites themselves and it's better to understand issues taking into consideration human foibles rather than paint it in black and white in an ethical languge.)

Besides, what Suyog mentioned about inspiration, and other things are not applicable to the news media because news by definition is reflection of reality and not a creative endeavor where someone borrows from somebody else, tweaks it a little and melds it with something else and produces something new. Journalism is about getting as closer to the truth as possible not creating layers where there is a greater likelihood of it getting distorted. Creativity involves certain imitation. This is not to be tolerated but even expected. But people don’t like anybody tinkering with reality.

We invest in news media monetarily, psychologically and sociologically. We also invest in the individual journalist who covers the events. For instance, a report by Barkha Dutt is much better regarded than a novice television reporter’s. The same applies for an op-ed piece by renowned journalists such as Shekhar Gupta and Saeed Naqvi. We give regard to their opinions and trust their intelligence. Tomorrow if we find that their opinions were borrowed from someone else, then we will lose respect for them and the next time they write something we wouldn't lay much in store for it. It would be like the story of crying wolf where even when they say something genuine tomorrow you will think they have plagiarised and hence have no say in the matter.

Now you may argue that this is very much true for news articles, but does it apply really to plagiarising in reviews and other feature stories? Will one day readers overlook plagiarisation here? A New York Times review is written with the sensibilities of the New Yorkers and not Indians. Gautaman's review would have been richer had he compared his knowledge of Indian films and personalities. If he had viewed the film from his Indian viewers’ perspective, his readers would have identified better with the film review, rather than the obscure Hollywood figures he quotes to appear sophisticated. Because of his laziness, the reader, who has paid Rs.3.25 to buy the Hindu, suffers. He/she suffers also because after reading the review he/she might never watch the movie because of the interpretation that 'it seems to be too artsy' since he hasn’t heard the big-wigs' names quoted in the article. So he/she might miss out on a good movie because of Gautam’s laziness. This, despite the fact that the reader may have purchased Hindu just to read the review and make a decision about which film to watch. The reviewer is someone with whom the readers develops a relationship. In the Times of India I knew Khalid Mohammed was biased towards Shah Rukh. I knew I rarely agreed with Nikhat Kazmi’s reviews. Readers have a relationship with each of them and would punish them badly if they betray the trust. So yea readers will always make reviewers pay a price if they plagiarise.

Overlooking plagiarism in other media
The other media that Suyog mentioned; films, songs and other stuff don’t have as big a direct impact on our everyday decision making as the news media do. But don’t we trust filmmakers and musicians as well? How many times have we gone to a movie and threw our hands in frustration seeing a badly made copy of a film we have already seen. We do pay Rs.80 for watching the film as against Rs. 2 for purchasing a newspaper, so why don’t we find many people blogging about this? When we (as in urban-centric, college-educated, well-read, upper-middle class) look at plagiarisation in films and music, we automatically assume that rest of India thinks like us. Take the example of Awara Paagal Deewana. I had lost track of the number of movies it borrowed from and so it can be taken as the best example of plagiarism. How many Indians had seen the films from which it was borrowed? The Matrix, The whole nine yards, Mission Impossible 2 and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon aren’t the typical movies a man on the street watches. They, more than us, contribute to the profits of the Bollywood producers. They are hardly aware of the copying. And it doesn’t bother them one bit even if they find out it is copied because they wouldn’t have understood the Hollywood plots because of American accents anyways. In fact they have an incentive in patronizing such films, as it saves them money and time in watching the originals.

The same goes for music. How many amongst us (the stereotype mentioned earlier), let alone man on the street Indians had heard the originals before we purchased Anu Mallik’s album? It is only after a geeky music lover boosts his own popularity around college campus talking about the original in an obscure album, that you find out that the song you liked so much was ‘inspired.’ (I remember the first song I came to know was copied was Tamma Tamma Loge… do you think even 0.1% of Indians had heard the original African (or was it Caribbean) song?) Most of the times the word spreads about plagiarism months after the song is released. By that time you have already invested your money. When you find out it is a copy, you are angry but you really like the song, lifted or not. For you as a consumer after having spent Rs.50 buying that cassette it makes no sense to purchase the original music costing Rs.100 (foreign music costs more). Now what is the choice? Definitely cribbing; trying out newly learnt invectives on Mallik and living with your purchase. If the original had been more popular amongst the janta, Anu Mallik would have to kiss his own arse.

And if you think this is not true, consider this. When the song Didi by Middle Eastern singer Khaled was introduced in India it was an instant hit. If you are from Maharashtra you will know that a song’s popularity depends on the number of Ganpati Mandals playing it and believe me even the most rabid Hindu nationalist mandal didn’t have any qualms repeating this song on their speakers. Then Anu Mallik came up with two variations of the same song. But they flopped miserably. No one even remembers them and yet Didi even today strikes a chord. The same happened with Macarena. The original was so popular that the Hindi one never really had a chance. The point I am trying to make is that viewers and listeners do punish plagiarism even in films and music. But only when they haven’t spent their money already and when they do not have a monetary stake or self-interest in supporting the plagiarised material. So though they may be angry at the unethical ways of the musician they know that protesting isn’t going to go anywhere and there is no benefit that can accrue to them.

Now coming to the news media, the relationship is much different here. You spend money on one particular film, music album, piece of clothing etc. only once. You don’t go buy the same cassette everyday or watch the same film in theatres over and over again. But newspapers you buy everyday. Even though the content is different the format and the product is the same. It is a continuous relationship fostered over years. One of the reasons why people don’t stop reading Times of India is this sense of loyalty and habit. So while you may be extremely disappointed after knowing that a film was copied or music was lifted you are smug in the knowledge that you won’t be buying the cassette again or spend Rs. 100 on the film again and protesting harshly on blogs therefore would be of no self-interest to you. Whereas every reader knows that he/she will buy the newspaper tomorrow and will be spending Rs. 3.25*365 every year. If its quality suffers, the reader has to bear with it forever. So the readers protest purely out of self-interest. Apart from that as I already mentioned in my earlier comment, a newspaper’s price is much more than its sale price. It isn’t as simple as ‘for Rs.100 I can buy 40 ToIs’ and hence I should be worried more about plagiarism in films and music than in newspapers. Mainstream media can help you save a lot of money through its news. It can help you make sound financial decisions depending on the political climate. If everyday a new cooperative bank is being exposed for its fraud, a reader will never put his money in cooperative banks. The stock market reporting is another example. A person may never buy a house in a locality where he reads reports of crime everyday. The same applies to film review. Imagine how much a person would lose experientially and monetarily over a year’s time by reading problematic reviews and then choosing to go or not to go to the films. If the newspaper started plagiarizing never telling the reader what he needs to know, never telling him the truth as they see it, merely borrowing from foreign sources, these benefits would vanish. And the reader would definitely switch. So I don’t agree with you at all that over a period of time plagiarism in news media will be no big deal, just as it is not in films and music. It will always be a big deal if it happens in the mainstream news media.

Market perspective
Considering it from a purely Market perspective too plagiarism will be made a big deal. Every entity in the market works towards making it as efficient as possible. And it serves the customers better if this happens. Bloggers by protesting against plagiarism are doing just that. People who don't like Times' articles that are plagiarised through Cosmopolitan may be buying it for its other stories. But since they are paying for the entire Times they have every right to protest. If you notice the reactions to the Hindu plagiarisation, they are all of disbelief. This is because many people pay a high cost (the Hindu is much expensive than Times or Express) for Hindu just because they are so trustworthy and unbiased in their content. So from a marketing perspective, there is nothing really surprising about a customer demanding his right. And the paper that plagiarizes and that breaks its contract of trust with its readers will suffer circulation losses in the long run.

If I were put on a spot here I would admit that plagiarism lifestyle articles and some stupid ‘10 ways to please your man and get him to get your favourite chiffon’ type articles were never a big deal and probably our double standards will eventually not extend to their sphere. Yet, it remains to be seen whether this will actually transpire. As someone who has great faith in the mainstream media despite whatever any blogger may say, I would be unconfortable accepting that. Also there is a prettier, more elegant, less embarrassing way for mainstream media to deal with this issue. Namely, just name the source upfront. Since your readers cannot afford cosmopolitan anyways, they would be glad to read those articles in your paper. All the newspapers will lose is a little revenue paying cosmopolitan and give them credit in the story. But this will be a worthwhile investment as they may save crores on lawsuits and at the same time not lose circulation due to an ethical person backing off. As the market evolves it is not a long shot to expect this to happen. And I am sure it will. Hence yes though today it seems likely that the lifestyle articles will pass into the category of no big deal, but tomorrow I trust the market to bring them into its fold.

So, if anyone has issues when someone argues about plagiarism from an ethical perspective because ethics demands that there be no double standards look at the blogger reaction from the marketing standpoint and it will make much more sense.


Shruthi said...

I came here after reading your comment on Suyog's post. Your writing is very clear and articulate. Wanted to compliment you on that. Keep writing.

Suyog said...

Wow! You already put this up!!

Great work Chetan - I for one thoroughly enjoyed the debate; more so because it didnt invole strangling each other's neck to prove a point (as it usually becomes in many a discussion LOL).

Good work to keep it all in one post - keep writing please!!


Chetan said...

Shruthi and Suyog:

Thank you both for the compliments. With comments like this for motivation, I think I will find it hard not to keep writing!

thennavan said...

Chetan, read your loonnngggg comment on Desipundit and wanted to congratulate you on the sheer effort itself. Good to know that you are a fellow DC blogger too. We did have a bloggers meet at Siva-Vishnu temple in July (maybe you can read about it going thru my archives as well as the links of the other DC bloggers that I've mentioned in it). Take care :-)

Chetan said...

Thanks Mukundan. It was a lot of pent up frustration at not being able to debate the posts Amit and Gaurav linked to. It started of as a rant and then I just kept going and going and going. Not exactly proud of the output but amazed at the sense of relief after expressing some honest frustration.

I will definitely be in touch with the DC bloggers. Thanks once again.

Amit Kulkarni said...

Is it mostly about being a pride thing?

In my former programming career, we all thought it was good form to use certain practices exactly as the most accomplished people in the field had told us about. We sometimes gave credit, but many times nobody gave them credit. Most times everybody who was interested in such kinds of things knew which book or article the program code was derived from.

Artful Dodger said...


Absolutely correct. This hullaballo being raised over plagiarism is actually stretching it too far. I have seen far too many bloggers copy almost all or part of an article followed by "Read the full thing here".

Not that it is plagiarism, but in this open internet , it is no use shouting "respect privacy on the internet etc. "

In fact, I would like to check the CD key in the version of Win XP installed on those Indian bloggers who have shouted the most against plagiarism. Does it start with FCKGW? Hmmm.