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Is it a real steal then?

india Updated: Sep 02, 2012 21:38 IST
Uddalok Bhattacharya

A not-so-great 19th century American poet had written a high-school poem exhorting all to follow in the footsteps of 'great men'. But when a not-so-great 19th century Bengali poet wrote a similar poem, chunks of which seem to have been a translation from his American peer, he earned opprobrium a hundred years later because no 'acknowledgement' to the parent poem had been made.

The Bengali poet, I feel, had been maligned because he had no views on such things — plagiarism, that is — in the absence of a World Intellectual Property Organisation. And he was in a way just innocently doing what he was asking others to do — following the path the American poet, who must have been great in his view, had taken.

Is a writer plagiarising when she or he has borrowed an idea? It is said that one of Rabindranath Tagore's finest short stories, 'The Hungry Stone' (Khudito Pashan), is based on a piece of work by Edgar Allan Poe. No one has said which, though it should not be difficult to nail Tagore because Poe's works are known and he died at 40. Some of Satyajit Ray's ghost stories are said to have a faint resemblance to those written by unidentified western writers. The plagiarism watchdogs have not been able to complete their investigation.

Let's imagine a writer in the pre-Internet age, when the reader had much more to wonder at. The writer writes a ghost story in which the apparition is an invisible table-tennis player who, while he is at his game, intermittently picks up a wine goblet and puts it down on a glass table, producing a clinking sound. The reader finds the context eerily familiar, though the previous ghost he read about may have played billiards. Is there an offence here — in the mere ambience? Should I be prohibited from painting water lilies because Monet had done it before?

Seldom have charges of plagiarism not come from interested parties. A filmmaker's shoot in Varanasi got the goat of a Bengali writer, who said the setting was similar to something he had written. And in the case of a scientific paper, a recent charge against a renowned scientist related to the reproduction of the text from one article in another. This is baffling. Surely, he did not 'steal' for the 'stolen' part's literary merit.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, blatant plagiarisms are all alike. But each kind of inspired imitation or minor copying is different in its own way. The eternal question is: Where does one draw the line?

An afterthought. Are the makers of Ek Tha Tiger plagiarising? Remember the Bengali film Ek Je Chilo Bagh (Once there was a Tiger) in the early 1970s?