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How ok is it to copy? 
Anjuly Mathai
 Story Dated: Monday, February 18, 2013 20:47 hrs IST 
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Once upon a time a man stepped out of a bath tub and realized that the water level rose. He suddenly understood the solution to a problem I’m not sure he knew was a problem before. The crazy old bugger cried Eureka, leapt out of the bath tub and ran through the streets of Syracuse naked. I’ve leapt out of the tub countless times with nary a thought in my head. Only the fear of arrest and a modicum of respectability, which I would barter in a second for a Eureka moment, have kept me from running naked in the streets of Cochin. My point is this: creativity doesn’t come to you in a flash. Only Archie comic characters and pre-historic Greek scholars are wired with bulbs that light up in their heads, triggering a brilliant idea. The genesis of every idea lies in a previous one. Nothing exists in a vacuum. In this context, is it so wrong to copy a bit or part of another’s work?

We have been witnessing an increasing number of allegations of copying. Recently, relatives of the 18th century Malayalam poet Irayimman Thampi alleged that Bombay Jayashri’s Oscar-nominated Tamil song from Life of Pi was a copy of Thampi’s lullaby, Omanathinkal Kidavo. Barfi, it was said, had several scenes that bore an uncanny resemblance to several Charlie Chaplin and other Hollywood films. Euphoria’s lead singer Palash Sen alleged that the theme anthem of Aamir Khan’s show Satyamev Jayate had been lifted from the band’s decade-old song Satyameva Jayate. I could cite several more examples. Even A.R. Rahman faced allegations of copying not too long ago.  

Picasso once said that ‘good artists copy, great artists steal.’ Cloning someone’s work does not breed creativity but copying it and making it your own is a different case altogether. This is the central principle behind the creative process. Contrary to popular belief, innovation is possible through the process of imitation.

According to the Indian Copyright Act of 1957, a copyright infringement happens when there’s ‘substantial’ copying. This is determined by considering quantitative as well as qualitative copying. So if you copy the first two lines of the song, ‘Happy Birthday’, it is considered a copyright infringement even if the two lines only constitute a small percentage of the whole song.

Here are two instances of copying that resulted in brilliant outcomes. Walter Issacson, Job’s biographer, describes his visit in 1979 to the Xerox research center in Palo Alto. He was intrigued by a Xerox prototype computer that used mouse and screen icons. Jobs stole the idea, refined it and made it a central feature of the Macintosh. Steve Jobs was famous for copying good ideas and making them his own. Malcolm Gladwell recently described him as being ‘the greatest tweaker of his generation.’

Similarly, shortly after Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, was published in Brazil, critic Alvaro Lins pointed out many resemblances between du Maurier’s book and the work of Brazilian writer Carolina Nabuco. Nabuco’s A Successora has a plot similar to Rebecca, including a young woman marrying a widower and the strange presence of the first wife.

I don’t know how far these allegations are true but can you imagine a world without Apple and Rebecca?

An article in Los Angeles Times gives the example of an industry in which copying is legal: cuisine. Chefs, it appears, have almost no rights in their creations. Recipes can be legally copied by anyone, including a competitor. In the food world, reports the L A Times, this happens all the time. ‘The world of cuisine nonetheless remains highly creative, and many great chefs believe openness, and the freedom to tweak the work of others, is what makes contemporary cuisine so vital,’ the paper reports.

Some lawyers advocate what serves as a foil to the copyright law – the copyleft license. Copyleft is a form of licensing that can be used as an alternative to copyright for works such as computer software, documents and art. While copyright law is used by an author to prohibit others from reproducing it, copyleft gives every person who receives a copy of the work permission to reproduce, adapt or distribute it.

Here’s an example of a copyleft license where copying ignited the process of innovation. In 1975, Dennis Allison wrote a specification for a simple version of the BASIC programming language. It soon became Dr Dobb’s Journal of Tiny BASIC. Hobbyists began writing BASIC language interpreters for their home computers and sending the source code to Dr. Dobb’s Journal and other magazines. In 1976, Jim Warren, editor of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, wrote in the newsletter of a magazine, ‘There is a viable alternative to the problems raised by Bill Gates in his letter to computer hobbyists concerning ‘ripping off’ software. When software is free, or so inexpensive that it’s easier to pay for it than to duplicate it, then it won’t be ‘stolen’.

We live in an idea-based economy. You can hit the jackpot with a single golden idea. Its genesis doesn’t necessarily have to lie in a Greek bathtub. It could be in a song that’s already sung. Or a story that’s already told.
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