Thursday, March 23, 2006

Let's Say “No” to Plagiarism, and Drugs!

Writers, together, let's say a loud “No” to plagiarism and drugs. Yes. Plagiarism is as bad as drugs, if not a degree worse. It is one of the major concerns rocking all creative fields of work today. In fact in Tamilnadu there is a popular joke about a music director: whenever somebody listens to one of his songs, they unconsciously start guessing which song he is likely to have flicked the tune from.

Have you ever given a thought to why people produce any piece of art (believe me every article which goes to print is a work of art). For personal satisfaction? For monetary benefits? For earning the respect of others? For gaining recognition? Most likely, the motivator will be a combination of these. But I like to believe that we all write for the same reason that people volunteer their skills for open source projects. As Thomas Friedman notes in his book The World is Flat, “They do it because they want something the market doesn't offer them, they do it for the psychic buzz that comes from creating a collective product that can beat something produced by giants like Microsoft or IBM, and – even more important – to earn the respect of their intellectual peers... Sometimes people contribute to these things because they make science, and they discover things, and the reward is reputation.”

When we realize that people write (or sing or code) for self-satisfaction, for respect and for reputation, we will naturally start looking at their work as part of their psyche and not as an inanimate object. We will then treat their work, whether a score of music or a page of writing or a computer program, as something to be handled with care, as something which they have a right over, as part of their knowledge which we can use only if they let us.

In this Internet age, where we all tend to research subjects on the WWW, rather than from books (I don't know how many of you will agree with me but books have a special charm which the WWW can never beat!) it is imperative that we know the basics of copyrights, ownership of works, charges of plagiarism and how to avoid it. It is very easy to simply collate information from a few web pages and string it into an article, but what's the fun? One, we are not respecting the original author's claim to recognition, and second we are not gaining any of the most important factors – self-satisfaction, reputation or respect – out of the exercise.

The copyright, copyleft issue

Niyam Bhushan ( scared me by saying it took him seven years to understand the complex world of copyrights. And I have just started learning about it!

Here's some basic copyright gyaan...

A copyrighted work is one over which the author (or the magazine or website in which the work is published) has rights. It means they have some lien over the work. The degree and duration of ownership might vary, but at the most basic level it means the work is not freely available for the public to use. When you want to quote from such a copyrighted article, you will have to get the author's permission and explicitly credit the author while referencing his/her work. It's a strong word to use, but when somebody uses parts of a copyrighted article without authorization, it amounts to theft, and the violator can be sued.

Today we have come to an age where work can be copyleft. That is a manifestation of the open source philosophy in our line of work. When you take the Free Documentation License, the work can be freely used by anybody else provided the resulting work is also distributed under FDL. Achieving a balance between copyrighted and copyleft works is the Creative Commons license which lets the author reserve some rights. You can mention that people are free to use your work provided they credit you, or that it can be used only for non-commercial purposes, or that it can be used only in its original form without modification, and so on. The Public Domain version of the Creative Commons makes the work “free for all”.

When authors decide to publish their work as copyleft, their responsibility against plagiarism (not of their work, but in their own work) increases. How? Imagine the following situation.

Picture Imperfect

Author A writes an article which is published in an e-zine. The author holds all copyrights to the work. Author B uses some content from A's work, without acknowledgment (note: this is illegal), and publishes her work as copyleft. Author C comes by and uses some parts of B's work in her article (note: this is legal because B's work is copyleft).

Now, Author A browses the web one day and chances upon C's article. Just imagine her shock when she sees her own work staring at her. She takes it up with C. However, Author C has not consciously committed any mistake because she only used copyleft content from B's article. So, now A and C together pick on B. Author B is in a very sorry position. She is sued for several million dollars (or a lifetime's earnings, whichever is smaller!)

Do you understand how B has actually committed a transitive sin! By publishing her works under FDL, B assured the public that it's indeed her own work, and that they are free to make the most out of it. By using A's copyrighted content without authorization (alright, that's called “lifted” content), B inadvertently passed on the evils of plagiarism to innocent readers and future users of the content (like C).

The Plague of Plagiarism

We've been using the word one too many times, but what exactly is it? According to the Collin's Cobuild dictionary, plagiarism refers to “the practice of using or copying someone else's idea or work and pretending that you thought of it or created it.”

So, using the structure of another article, verbatim use of sentences, expressing the original author's ideas, and so on, without acknowledging the creator is plagiarism. What is not plagiarism? I have quoted the Collin's Cobuild definition. That is not plagiarism. I will be quoting Niyam's views. That is not plagiarism. So, where you are authorized to quote people and you credit them, it is not plagiarism.

I am talking about the field which I, as a writer, can most closely associate with. But actually, plagiarism applies to a plethora of fields, ranging from engineering design to music.

Here's the gyaan I received when I turned to Niyam for more enlightenment, “In many fields, plagiarism seems to have become the norm, rather than the exception. I am alarmed when I see this happening in design & creativity. Often, I have been on the receiving end when designs I have done are plagiarized or even stolen outright.

But I am really shocked when I see this happening blatantly in the software industry, where they howl the most about open source versus proprietary stuff.

On the other hand, I also realize there is nothing 'original' in the true sense, under the Sun. in Eastern civilizations, copying is a form of appreciation (look at all those people aping Dharmendra or Amitabh in radio and television shows). What someone calls plagiarism is called sharing in another civilization.

So how do I walk the tight rope? After years of research, introspection, and meditation, I have arrived at the world of copyleft, gnowledge, public domain knowledge, and stuff like Creative Commons, GNU/Linux, etc. This is why I boldly created the initiative. If you publish under a CC license, as an author you cannot plagiarize or use non-authorized content, but as an author you encourage a knowledge-culture of sharing and growth.

For the past 10 years, I have refused lucrative offers from publishers who are willing to pay me significant amounts for a book. They are perplexed by my insistence on copylefting the authored work. All the articles I publish are under the verbatim, or the FDL, or the CC license. Even the three years of articles for LINUX for You, and Hindustan Times. The music and drum loops composed by me are under a similar license.” Heard that?

Simply a matter of moral responsibility

Law or no law, plagiarism is immoral, and we are certainly not gonna indulge in it. After ranting for so long, let me come down to the practical aspect and share with you a sureshot way to write articles which are totally free of plagiarism...

The WWW is a great resource. It would be criminal not to make use of it for our research. Yet, when you copy and paste some reference material into a document and work directly on it, you will tend to leave some parts of the content as it is, simply because it is convenient. And the result is what is called plagiarism.

Remember that paper and pen are a writer's best friends. Whatever information you gather from the Internet, jot it down as a mind map or as simple points on paper. And let it cool for a day or two. Then, when you are unlikely to remember the nitty-gritties of how the information was organized in the websites, take a fresh look at the gathered points, analyze and organize them logically, expand and explain them, and finally get the facts verified and reinforced by experts, before writing the article. This article, I promise you, will be your work, till the last drop of blood. It will not be influenced in any way by the flavour of the articles which you collected the information from.

Inspired by the open source world

Let's draw inspiration from the many people who work on open source projects all over the world, let's write to share knowledge and to gain self-satisfaction. Tweaking Friedman's explanation to our needs, let's proclaim, “We do it because we want to give our readers something which others have not, we do it for the psychic buzz that comes from writing an excellent article that can beat something written by the most well-known authors, and – even more important – to earn the respect of our intellectual peers... we learn, we discover things, and the reward is reputation.”

Now, to thine own self be true and where does the question of plagiarism even arise!

Garam garam masala vadas!

This is a sure shot recipe for masala vada. Tried, tweaked and tested umpteen times by yours truly. I really do not remember where I got the original recipe from, so I'm sorry for not acknowledging the genius who formulated the original recipe.


3/4 cup tuar dal
3/4 cup chana dal
1/4 cup urad dal
A inches piece of ginger
4 red chillies
2 tbsp saunf
1/2 tsp asafoetida
2 green chillies, very finely chopped
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp cashewnuts, broken
2 tbsp finely chopped coriander leaves
2 tbsp finely chopped curry leaves
3 tbsp grated coconut (optional)
Salt, according to taste

  1. Soak the dals together in lots of water, for 2 hrs., and then drain the water.
  2. Remove one fistful of the dals and set aside.
  3. Coarsely grind the rest of the dals along with ginger, red chillies, saunf, asafoetida and required salt. Add minimal or no water. If you grind it too finely, then the vadas won't be crisp.
  4. Mix together the ground dals, the whole dals which were set aside, chopped onions, green chillies, coriander, curry leaves, cashewnuts, and grated coconut.
  5. Make small balls, flatten into vadas, and deep fry till reddish brown in colour.

Serve hot, with coconut chutney.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Zen Prayer

I asked for strength,
And God gave me difficulties to make me strong;
I asked for wisdom,
And God gave me problems to solve;
I asked for prosperity,
And God gave me brain and brawn to work;
I asked for courage,
And God gave me dangers to overcome;
I asked for love,
And God gave me troubled people to help;
I asked for favour,
And God gave me opportunities;
I received nothing I wanted,
But everything I needed;
My prayer has been answered.