If Plagiarism rampant then what Property Rights

7 Sep

Creating and managing intellectual property is still a young science in the country. Plagiarism even at the highest levels is thus rampant everywhere

Teachers often use various tools to keep their students engaged and motivated, especially in senior classes. A tool that I use often, since the students have grown up in educational institutes fond of policing, is the test. To ensure punctuality and that the readings are done, the first four minutes of my class are a little quiz: An exercise in rapid analysis and thinking based on their readings. Something they had to whip out of their graduate minds, putting their allocated self-learning and experience together. They were business school students, so at the least I was teaching them to think on their feet and deliver rapidly, and at best they learnt the power of preparation for the unknown, to bring order into chaos — which was the point of their learning. What I did not expect was plagiarism. Three minutes of thinking and writing was too much for a few students. What was worse was that some blatantly copied another’s work — which I am told is common across the nation. Were  they dumb enough to think they would not be caught? Or brazen enough not to care? Of course, that they were both incompetent and dishonest was proven.

The issue of plagiarism is a serious one not because of honesty — which is important in itself. But it is competence that is called into question. The need to copy comes from an inability to do work on one’s own in an efficient manner. That again clearly indicates that there is a gap of skills and knowledge in addition to an ethical gap in education. Copying seems almost to be a culture.

Creating and managing intellectual property is still a young science in India, and we are not sure whether we want to go along with the Western definitions yet. Not least because Western definitions have not served the nation well in the past. But it is also true that intellectual capital in the arts and medicine have rarely been enforced by law. Traditionally, in the arts, and in music one rarely knew who the artist was. Poets often embedded their names in the composition, some musicians were able to pass their names down generations, but the culture of retaining ownership for creations was rare. Even in medicine, remedies were rarely copyrighted, though they were not shared far and wide — secrecy was used to retain the value of the treatment and limit it to that doctor or their successors. One wonders how the former fed themselves and created incentives to create more art and music — in our capitalistic world, we would write poetry or paint only for it to sell in our name — or that is what the intellectual property gurus may say. On the other hand, how wonderful would it have been if the medicines that were kept limited to a few proponents could have remuneratively travelled and saved more lives. Here are the twin problems of intellectual property — and finding a balance between them is the task of regulators and policy makers.

The issues of plagiarism and intellectual property rights are closely related in practice and in ethics. It must be remembered that India is a signatory to various treaties and has commitments to adhering to the rules on intellectual property, yet on its own timetable. This has had more visible impact in the case of medicines rather than books in the recent past. But now, as music artists demand their due, and authors claim their moral right over their own writing, we must figure out what is right for us — as a person and as a people.

Take the case of study materials for higher education. On one hand stand the students who cannot afford to buy the books first hand, and on the other hand are publishers and authors who need to survive and create more books. Student materials are often photocopies of entire textbooks, which clearly is unfair to the people who make books. Many countries regulate how many pages of each book can be photocopied for student use, others have cracked down on intermediaries such as photocopy shops that actually make the copies. In India too publishers are seeking various means to crack down on property rights violation including the photocopy shops that surround the university areas. However this can only hurt access to knowledge — we cannot have basic knowledge restricted to the rich who can afford the books. Using e-books too is not a way out, the same restrictions apply to them. In some places even e-mailing a published paper is seen as a copy and thus restricted, as is sharing files.

The question is: Who will resolve this impasse?


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