A venerable newspaper down south has been having diverse plagiarism woes. First it was gynaecology then it was Veerapan Moily.
The paper ran a piece on how moralistic gynaecologists impact women's health and a box about a crowd-sourced directory of female friendly, reliable gynaecologists in different cities. It neglected to mention the group of women who were crowd-sourcing the directory while cribbing large parts of the article from a piece in an Indian feminist zine.
Since in the age of social media, koi raaz raaz nahin rehta for much time, all was revealed in a few hours and the paper published a quick apology and attribution online. Then Congress MP Veerappa Moily provided the paper with a Britney moment, yaniki, oops I did it again, by reproducing as his own several exact paragraphs from an op-ed which had appeared (get this) in the same paper a fortnight before. The paper called Mr Moily's article unforgiveable plagiarism and Mr. Moily said he took inputs.
At this moment I am sure many media interns are earnestly (and fearfully) thinking: Haila, what's the difference between plagiarism and inputs ya? One of the paradigm shifting contributions of digital culture has been a new logic of production and circulation, which questions the repressive Intellectual Property Rights heavy approach of corporate capitalism and its mono-cultural market ideas. This questioning has created and been created by a philosophy of open source codes, the idea that creativity draws from a commons — a cultural heritage — and then builds on it and hence no authorship or ownership is perpetual nor absolute.
Radical ideas appeal to us because they speak to some fundamental truth of our times. But, like with computers, we often end up using them to fulfill our immediate purpose, superficially, without really thinking of the overall philosophy. For instance, we may use the idea of rights or choice in feminism, without considering the complex web of values which underpin these. Similarly people use piracy, peer-to-peer sharing, copyleft, co-creation, collaboration, open access to mean I want it now, or I don't want to pay for it, rather than exploring the philosophy they're part of.
Pic for representation only
The growing pressure to convert the internet into a commercial product and space, driven by the logic of volume and competing for eyeballs now gives us something like the TV Breaking News race where the same stories appear on several curatorial sites (eg. Buzzfeed), blurring ideas of originality and authorship.
Facebook recently made optional the tag where when you share someone's post, it automatically says "via so-and-so." In doing this it appealed as always, to the worst part of our psychology — winning that ancient finders keepers race. Colonisers have been rocking this trait from the time Columbus "discovered" America.
Authorship, as many have said, is not original. But it is unique. It is not digital in the sense of being endlessly, exactly replicable but open-source in that things build on each other. How we write is unique to us as writers and artists and similarly, how we curate or put together our posts too carries our imprint — what is called chhaap in oral culture. Attribution honours the idea of authorship, as sharing celebrates the idea of the commons, making attribution while sharing a beautiful courtesy and a gesture of community.
Today, when as digital citizens, we argue for free speech, access and net neutrality, it's worth remembering the philosophical origins of digital culture too. To reduce digital culture to 'inputs', is to reduce knowledge and understanding (i.e, authorship) to information, which is to treat what's human instrumentally eventually leaving us a poorer culture.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.