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What is original, anyway?

The line between copied, adapted, inspired and fresh could, sometimes, be blurred

Madhukar Sabnavis  |  New Delhi 

Madhukar Sabnavis

I saw the movie Three Idiots and was quite inspired by it. As it was based on the book Five Point Something, curiosity made me read the book and I found it rather different. While the premise was the same and some incidents were the same, there were distinctly new characters in the movie and the story was, to my mind, different. To say it was copied from the book and hence the author needed to be given greater credit (it was a debate at the time of release of the movie) seemed to me a little stretched. To me, Three Idiots was, at best, inspired and not a copy. Interestingly, a friend who read the book first and then saw the movie felt otherwise - the film is a copy, she insists. On the other hand, I read the book Gone with the Wind before I saw the movie and felt that the movie was as true a copy (or adaptation) of the original. Most of the incidents in the film - the key ones at least - are part of the book. The book was edited; but that is a necessity to convert an over-500-page book into a three-hour movie. Is this a case of what you see first, the psychological factor of anchoring, that makes the difference to our perception of what is a copy, what is inspiration and what is fresh? These are important things to think about in a world that is moving towards ideas, in which the protection of ideas is a priority if creativity is to flourish.

Inspiration is a difficult thing to understand. Centuries ago, Isaac Newton said he saw further by "standing on the shoulders of giants". And this is true of most new ideas. They are built on ideas thought of before our time, which we imbibe consciously through schooling and learning and unconsciously through observation and experience. Hence, when a creator creates, he or she is not conscious that he or she is building on thoughts someone else, sometime, somewhere has already thought of. Take the 2012 Hindi hit Vicky Donor and the Canadian French movie Starbuck. The only thing common to the two is a sperm donor; everything else is completely different. Just because the premise is the same, to even imply that the Indian film is inspired by the Canadian film is fallacious. Just as much as every love story - and there have been many - based on feuding families can be seen as based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. (A more knowledgeable bibliophile might find some other origin to the Shakespearean romantic tragedy, and claim even Shakespeare was not original!) Yet, if you consider Vicky Donor, Starbuck and those numerous love stories, the fact that the premise has been given a new form itself makes them fresh and maybe original.

There are no new ideas, only ideas that are an evolution of something thought of before. In fact, if one studies Aristotle in some detail, all of today's ideas can be tracked down to some idea he had thought about. He was, perhaps, a random thinker and was fortunate to be the first to be comprehensively documented. Hence, he can stake a claim to ownership of many ideas. In fact, documentation often leads to ownership, even if the owner doesn't want to claim it. Think: who do you associate with the phrase "the world is flat"? Ninety-nine per cent of people will attribute it to Thomas Friedman, the man who wrote a book by the name. However, the author himself acknowledges, in his first chapter, that he got it from Nandan Nilekani when they met in Bangalore.

What's inspired and what's a copy? That's hazy sometimes. Many old Hindi film songs are based on classical Indian ragas. We have come to accept them as originals and actually salute the music maestros who have created classical music based songs. However, when one hears the song 'Jab koi baat bigad jaye' (from the 1990 movie Jurm) which sounds strikingly similar to the song '500 miles' made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary, we feel it's a lift - a copy. When the famous Sholay song 'Mehbooba Mehbooba' hit radios in 1975, Western-music aficionados couldn't resist pointing out that it sounded a lot like Demis Roussos' song 'Say you love me'. Yet, both were 'based' on an old folk song, 'Ta Rialia'. So, did R D Burman copy Demis Roussos, or were both inspired by the folk song? Is it a copy if the author of the 'original' version has a face; but if it's something faceless like a raga or folk song, it becomes inspired?

For the average viewer or listener, it's immaterial. When in college I heard the song 'Chhookar mere man ko' a romantic song from the movie Yaraana, it was of little consequence to me that the song was a 'lift' of the Rabindrasangeet song 'Tomaar holo shuru, aamar holo shaaraa'. However, it did make a difference to the original owner and allegedly the song was cut short in the movie.

Creators, by nature, want to be original and fresh. And want to put their mark of ownership for anything they create. However, in a world of judgment and a world of openness, there is always a danger of accusations of plagiarism and copying, allegations that could both be emotionally hurtful and reputation-destroying for the creator. There is a need for greater clarity to determine what's original and what is inspired or copied. One needs to recognise that the same idea can emerge in different locations at the same time - and that does not necessarily mean one has copied from another.

Advertising needs to address this question, as we are dealing with ideas and striving for originality every day. The solution is to be careful in passing judgment. It is better to operate in the world of 'fresh' and 'not fresh'. An accusation of plagiarism has an implication of cheating - but intention is tough to determine. Anything a judge knows has been done before, but is subject to a creative re-evaluation, should not be branded plagiarism but just declared not fresh. Protecting the interests of creative thinking is more important than labelling. Focus on judging work and avoid passing judgment on people - the creators. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is vice-chairman, Ogilvy, India. These views are personal.

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First Published: Thu, June 06 2013. 21:50 IST