Pablo Picasso is often credited with saying “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Steve Jobs, the legendary founder of Apple, used to quote this Picasso line. A good artist simply and unthinkingly copies another’s work, while the really great artist observes, learns from multiple sources and then combines them innovatively to deliver an output that is unique and singular. This combinatorial approach is what even science is all about. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” said the great Sir Isaac Newton: meaning that his intellectual insights were made possible by the contributions of great thinkers before him. Consistently delivering something that is original, creative, unique and innovative is, therefore, something only truly great artists do. 

Unfortunately, the world is awash with “good” artists ie, copycats and plagiarists who take the unique outputs of many hours of hard work and intellectual output of the creators and pass it off as their own. These intellectual property thieves cause great economic harm not only to the original designer but to the entire industry by causing people to lose trust in it. There is no incentive left for any designer or creator to invest in  R&D to create something of value or to collaborate with others without fear of being ripped off. Ultimately, nobody benefits and the industry descends into ubiquitous mediocrity.

Copying another’s work and passing it off as one’s own is, tragically, rather common in the creative and cultural field given how hard it is to prove the provenance of creative works.  Many artists claim they have simply been “inspired” even when it is painfully obvious that a piece of music or garment or a script or even an entire recipe or design has been more than “inspired” ie, it has been copied. It is therefore critical for creative people and entrepreneurs working in the creative and cultural spaces to become aware of the importance of protecting the intellectual property of their works through appropriate legal means such as copyrights of their designs, trademarks and registered marks. Ignorance of the law and the innocence of the cultural entrepreneur cannot be excuses when one is building a business! 

Protecting Intellectual Property Rights

Even giant mega brands are not above copying. Take the case of the $6B mega global fashion brand Christian Dior. In January 2018, Elle India magazine featured actress Sonam Kapoor in a Dior dress that had a series of yoga poses emblazoned on it. Little did people know that according to designer Orijit Sen,  “(the) Dior dress was a blatant rip off of one of his well-loved creations”, that his brand PeopleTree had created over 10 years prior and was still producing in 2018. Dior eventually settled the claim of copyright infringement when Sen took legal recourse. Sen also told the Washington Post then that many of his designs have been stolen in the past, “but not by a fashion house this big.” The world of fashion, especially so in India, is particularly rife with such cases given the lack of awareness, the laws and the processes involved in proving a case of Intellectual Property (IP) theft. The good news is that more and more designers have begun to document their design processes, artifacts and collections to protect the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) of their creations. Social media too has played a huge role in outing copycats. 

The Indian tradition has by and large been “open”. Art, architecture, music, food, craftwork, dance and other creative, cultural works were made generally available without ascribing and asserting ownership, distribution and consumption rights of intellectual property. This contrasts with the world of IPR in the Western tradition. Interestingly, in 1993, Michael Jackson and co-inventors were granted a US patent for designing a shoe that allowed the superstar to perform an iconic signature dance move in his song “Smooth Criminal” where he leaned forward 45 degrees seemingly defying gravity! In fact, the Indian Copyright Act of 1957 protects even dance moves yet one wonders how many of our performers do so. 

The well-recognized Tea Tree of Australia, the Gingko Biloba of China, Ginseng of Korea, Guarana of the Amazon and Aloe Vera of Mexico are major players in the lucrative global alternative therapy industry. India with its vast storehouse of traditional and ancient cultural heritage artifacts has a lot of catching up to do in this regard. In parallel to creating the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, India aggressively and successfully challenged the patents granted to turmeric powder for its use as a wound-healing agent and to basmati rice. While India secured these wins, it also exposed its lax approach.

The Battle for the Basmati GI Tag

The fact that basmati didn’t even have a Geographical Indicator (GI) of origin for years was ultimately set right. However, there are battles between Indian states now for the GI tag for basmati! India is also mounting challenges at the World Intellectual Property Rights Organization to the granting of patents to yoga and asanas and to products made from neem and tulsi. 

Valuing IPR

While basking in the afterglow of “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness” as said by Oscar Wilde, it is important for all of us to also call out the criminal act of any imitation without permission and attribution!

It is time that all those interested in protecting and promoting Brand India encourage genuine cultural enterprises by respecting and valuing IPR. 

What do you think?

Feature Image: Freepik