A few years ago, one of the largest law firms in the country invited me to participate in a discussion on intellectual property rights. The other panelist was a former judge, a world-renowned expert on the subject. While she must have wondered why she was on a panel with a man known primarily for his opinions on Kangana Ranaut and weirdly named underwear brands, in my defense I had been included in the one of my novels dealing with endemic IP theft by our movie industry.
“To me, the attitude of my countrymen towards IPRs,” I said, “is best exemplified by the morning walker, the guy who casually picks flowers from the trees that grow in the houses on the along his way…so that he could devoutly offer them to the gods in his puja room. Without permission from the florist. Or a hint of irony, for that matter. I have never been able to understand how he hopes to pull the wool over the all-seeing eye of God by offering him something totally undeserved.
A few weeks ago, a so-called freelance journalist raised – as is – several parts of a book review I had written in this same newspaper. His contribution: altering some of my words with inappropriate synonyms. It was published by a supposedly reputable newspaper. To this day, despite my protest on social media and support from writers and journalists, the article remains online. Gloriously, shamelessly, as is. Not a word from the “journalist” or the newspaper. This is the world we live in. The “independent journalist” will continue to find work. From the same newspaper. And others. It will undoubtedly flourish.
Kind of like a pathological serial plagiarist from the film industry who recently won a seat in Parliament. Or a ‘historian’, who lifted parts of an award-winning undergraduate thesis and articles written by two other scholars, currently making a series of lit parties emblazoned with what was originally known as Nehru vest and a wtf-can-you-do smile repellent.
During the roundtable, as I spluttered about the impunity with which the average Indian co-opted copyrighted material, and how, coming from a family of poets and artists, we made ourselves stealing our intellectual property, copying and pasting it, misusing it, abusing it and profiting from it had become a frustrating rite of passage, my scholar co-panellist made an interesting observation.
“You must understand our culture a little, Krishna,” she said, trying to calm me down. “For centuries, our artists, sculptors, composers and poets have had the habit of not putting their ‘signature’ on their creations. When you go to the Louvre, you know which painting is by which artist. But when we go, say, to a temple here, do we know who the sculptor is? The artist here was working for the king or the god. And understanding the concept of copyright – a Western invention – is going to take us time.
While this clarified my need as an artist to remain somewhat detached from the vein of my ancestors when it came to “ownership”, it did not shed new light on why the average Indian today don’t think about plagiarism.
As someone who posts something on social media on a daily basis, over the years I have become accustomed to receiving my own messages as WhatsApp forwards attributed to others. It’s the price you pay for making your posts public, a friend said. I’m pretty sure private messages are no less vulnerable. In India – from doctoral dissertations to family photographs, from poster designs to entire movie plots, from architectural plans to advertising jingles – everything is a flower that grows on the unfortunate overhanging branch of someone’s tree. else. Ripe to be picked, cut, pasted, passed on, claimed, sold and offered as an offering at the feet of the ultimate god of all – self.
If we go by recent development indexes, our glorious nation is pretty much at the bottom of most. I wonder if there is an index for intellectual property theft. Because if there is, we would be number one. (The truth is that China is leading here. They do it on a large scale at the corporate level. But I’m sure the average Indian beats the Gobi Manchurian against the Chinese when it comes to daily theft and occasional copyright.)
Finally, an anecdote from our dear film industry. About a decade ago, a well-known actor wept in public about how the movie they made with a lot of love, effort and money was ruthlessly leaked online before it was released. The film fraternity flocked to the CM to demand justice for this heinous crime perpetrated against them. At the press conference, a superstar known for his philosophical finger-wragging delivered the ultimate dialogue to TV reporters…without the slightest bit of irony.
“You know, originally I was supposed to do this movie. The director showed me a DVD of a Korean movie and said we should ‘make it again’…”
Essentially, what our film fraternity lamented was that the material they had piously stolen for profit and glory had been dishonourably re-stolen by someone else to lessen their profit and glory. I wonder what the Korean filmmaker would have said if he had been present.
I really don’t know what I’m talking about though. When the average Indian thinks he can cheat the Omniscient with stolen flowers, in his eyes, who are we foolish mortals who strive to write, compose, paint and create original material?