There’s a Pepsi commercial showing in the United States that really tickles me. It starts with a man buying one of Pepsi’s new 7.5 ounce mini-cans from a machine. After the can rolls out, he looks at its size and says, “Inconceivable!” The can then makes its journey across a crowded Hollywood lot, passing by folks saying, “I’m the king of world!” “Hey, I’m walking here!” and “I am serious, but don’t call me Shirley.” And that’s just in the first 14 seconds.
For those who might not be as big of movie buffs as me, these four pieces of dialogue are well-known lines from The Princess Bride, Titanic, Midnight Cowboy and Airplane! Over the next 32 seconds, the commercial goes on to quote The Wizard of Oz, Good Will Hunting, Caddyshack, When Harry Met Sally, The Terminator, Dirty Dancing, Apollo 13, Taxi Driver, Gone with the Wind and Old School, until it finally ends with Cuba Gooding Jr. stepping on set yelling “Show me the mini!” — an obvious play on his line from Jerry McGuire. Debuting Oscar night, this commercial is an intelligent and well-executed romp through American pop culture. But as it doesn’t cite the films it quotes, is it plagiarism?
How you define plagiarism can depend on what country you’re from. Certainly US copyright laws are not copyright laws everywhere, and what is protected here isn’t protected elsewhere. Small US exporters, for example, are often afraid to export to China because of the stereotype that the Chinese will knock off every product they have. This stereotype is so prevalent in the United States that one December 2008 online IndustryWeek article by Dan Martin joked that “Trademark Theft Remains a Chinese Trademark.” The article discusses a fake Tamiflu ring in China run by what it calls “trademark pirates” and shares that “US companies alone lost at least $2.6 billion in potential sales in 2005 due to Chinese piracy involving business and entertainment software, music, movies and books.”
Clearly, not only do copyright laws vary from country to country, but even within the United States, copyright and trademark violation is very difficult for the wounded party to pursue unless the plagiarizer made money from the theft. As a writer — and even more so, as a thinker — financial gain is the part that is least important to me. To me, when you steal my idea, you steal a part of myself, and I will never trust you again.
Perhaps this is because I was raised in a family of artists. My father draws and my maternal grandmother painted. My mother is a dancer. My paternal grandmother was a quilter and my brother does woodwork. I spent a significant part of my childhood in art stores and at art guild meetings and competitions. The creation of art is an outpouring, the proverbial birthing of a child. My maternal grandmother once told me she envied me for being a writer. She said that as a writer, I always got to keep a copy of what I had made — once given away, those words would still remain on my computer. As a painter, she said that once she had poured herself into each piece, that there could be only one of it and once she had sold that one, it was gone from her forever. One might even argue that the genre or discipline of art is not what makes art art. It is this outpouring of soul that she spoke of, this giving of one’s self by creating life on a piece of paper or canvas. In other words, art is the act of creation itself and not the created.
To me, this is what makes me an artist. I put my full self into these articles and into the other things I write. I may not strike genius every time, but I do strike my heart. To think that someone would steal part of my heart and claim it as their own makes them lower than low in my book.
But not everyone thinks this. As we’ve already discussed, there are many in China who have no problem crediting the ideas of others as their own. IndustryWeek goes on to say that after China, the world’s “next worst violator” is Russia. Evidently, copyright theft and plagiarism is such a given in these countries that the global economy has seen substantial financial loss as a result, with “worldwide losses at the hands of the Chinese in the hundreds of billions of dollars.”
The fact that money is involved in business plagiarism helps the majority of the world agree that it’s wrong. But if no money were involved, would it still be?
Between wrong and right, there is a world of gray. Surely we will all agree that to illegally steal the Tamiflu formula and use it to cook up your own knock-off for profit is wrong. But for Pepsi to make money off the words from scriptwriters throughout history is funny and clever. Where is the line?
Plagiarism, as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it, comes in four breeds:
1) to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own.
2) to use (another’s production) without crediting the source.
3) to commit literary theft.
4) to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.
All four of these make it clear why, in translating a book or poem, you continue to leave the original author’s name on all attributions. There absolutely is nothing wrong with using the ideas of another. You just have to give them credit when you do so.
I’m not the only person in the history of man who’s been plagiarized. To go back to movies, there’s a scene in Working Girl where the underestimated Tess, played by Melanie Griffith, has to prove in an elevator that a business idea was originally hers. Because this is Hollywood, the person who stole the idea — her boss — was immediately fired after everyone learned Tess was right.
But it doesn’t work that way in the real world. Just two issues ago, I wrote on how Proctor & Gamble took an idea from Beam Technologies then improved it and explained how this improvement — or disruption — was just how business works.
What I want for this industry, though, is a world of fresh ideas. Going back to conferences, for as long as I’ve been attending them the common complaint has been that there are no new ideas. There’s a yearning, a striving for invigoration. Coming from an agrarian society, I know that the only way to grow a fresh crop is if the ground is fertile. Farmers can’t create more land, so instead they rotate the type of crops. Moving what is grown in a certain area to a different area and planting new crops there allows certain minerals to return to the land, and the returning of these minerals is what allows farmers to grow crops as though the land itself were new.
When we plagiarize one another, when we take someone else’s ideas and claim them as our own, we are not returning minerals to the land. We are not growing a rich and fertile industry. Instead, we are stripping the land of what allows any crop to grow — innovation, creativity and heart.
As the fall conference season approaches, I encourage my colleagues to grow something new. And if you find that your idea isn’t new after all, that maybe someone else came up with it first or you forgot that you had originally heard it from them, well, go back to the land. Rotate your way of thinking. And create something new. That’s why Pepsi isn’t plagiarizing — because they built on existing quotes and turned them into something clever and new.
How can you make that presentation on in-country review different? What do you have to say about transcreation that’s never been said before? How can you turn quality assurance into something interesting? Let’s take this ground that has been around for decades and grow art that’s new.