Monday, November 22, 2010

Pilipinas Kay Ganda and the Culture of Plagiarism: An Acceptable National Instinct?

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The photo was taken here. Created by Spanky Hizon.
The headline story today of Inquirer is clear, President Aquino wants the Department of Tourism to get another logo and branding for its promotion project. The criticism over the "Pilipinas Kay Ganda" seems to be too hot for them to handle, after taking flak from solons, including Sen. Miriam Santiago who was not amused.

Frankly, I can't see how WOW Philippines cannot sell. It already did, albeit not as effective as the tourism strategy of our neighbors Indonesia (beach-wise Boracay is so much better than Bali) and Malaysia, which tourism industry are reaping billions. But that is a topic for another day.

And there is another thing, the more fundamental question of whether we should really be promoting tourism industry this much if it is actually found to be ecologically-destructive (even Ecotourism is not immune to this) and damaging and/or demeaning of our indigenous cultures and national identity. This, when we should really be focusing on more sustainable and robust sources of economic development, like industrialization. But again, that is another topic for another day.

But I want to focus on one issue, and it is the claim that Pilipinas Kay Ganda logo is a product of plagiarism. Blogger Spanky Hizon revealed what is to be a lethal monkey-wrench to the DOT's project - by putting it side-by-side with Poland's "Polska" tourism logo and saying that the similarities are simply, too hard to ignore. Someone in the DOT (or whoever they commissioned) must have been a great Google fan.

But is it just a mere slip-up on the part of DOT? I say, that it is more than that. It is, in fact, related to recent controversy hounding the Philippine Supreme Court  and the claims that the Supreme Court, by protecting itself from accusations that it plagiarized a legal text and censoring the UP College of Law who fought against it, may have just legalized plagiarism "without malicious intent".

For that matter, the question then becomes: is the culture of plagiarism really, morally detestable? What are the conditions with which it becomes permissible and even necessary?

The Supreme Court and Plagiarism

Let us have a briefer. The Supreme Court en banc recently ruled ("Vinuya vs Romulo"), on April 28, 2010, to dismiss the petition of more than 70 comfort women belonging to the “Malaya Lolas Organization” to compel the Philippine government to secure from Japan an “apology and other forms of reparations” for the World War II crimes of the soldiers of the Japanese Imperial army against them. Ironically, the decision was claimed to have been lifted straight (allegedly without citation) from at least three sources - including Dr. Mark Ellis', “Breaking the Silence: On Rape as an International Crime” published in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law in 2006. Ellis, in an email sent to the justices on July 23 signed as “executive director” of the International Bar Association based in London - the largest lawyers’ organization in the world - expressed his concern that the SC "misread" the arguments he raised in the article because it was written "precisely to argue for the appropriate legal remedy for victims of war crimes".

vinuya vs romulo

(The accusation is not just about plagiarism, but deliberate misinterpretation. I have a thing or two on the Philippine's culture of misinterpretation and filtered absorption of reality, but that would be a good blog topic post altogether, so let's defer discussion on that for now.)

Compelled to answer on the plagiarism accusation, the Supreme Court surprisingly decided to protect its own and then turned the table against the UP Lawyers who exposed the plagiarism incident, ordering the 37 faculty members to explain why they should not be sanctioned for airing a statement against a Justice who served as the decision's ponente. President Aquino later sided with the faculty members - pithing him in another legal wrangle with the magistrates.

The picture was taken from (see here).
The issue that was raised is about intellectual integrity. If the Supreme Court can actually absolve itself of plagiarism as long there is no malicious intent (in fact blaming Microsoft Word for plagiarism), then the same must apply to all instances of plagiarism - in effect legalizing the practice.

But is the Supreme Court really trailblazing into a brave new culture? Or are they merely a reflection of a sociological characteristic of the Filipino psyche? Or are these a consequence of a period of social development

Filipinos and Plagiarism: Analysis

We must begin with the thought that “compelled attribution of an idea to an individual” is more than just a norm. In developed societies, it is usually enforced by law or by convention. There are stiff penalties against it, apart from the informal punishment given by the intellectual community.

But we have to understand that plagiarism has not been around since time immemorial. Just as any normative and cultural construct, plagiarism only emerged during a specific phase in institutional developmental. In fact, plagiarism as a concept only evolved during the 18th Century. Prior to that, scholars and apprentices are encouraged to copy the master as adeptly as they can. Not much different from a toddler taught to copy the manners of his parents.

So why is plagiarism still prevalent in the Philippines? Here, I hypothesize. I believe that ruthless copying from foreign text is prevalent because we believe we can get away with it. We still feel relatively isolated from the global “ideas” community, whether in academic or commercial setting – whether we are talking about a scientific treatise, an advertising concept, or a legal text. Thus, because of our perceived isolation, we believe that getting caught copying does not have that much cost or price. We believe, deep in our hearts, that we will naturally be ignored anyway, being the small fish that we are.

But what is the root of that? I feel that this is born of a perception that at least in this period, we still cannot compete with foreigners in the production of ideas. We need a logo? Let us look for a tourism logo from other countries using Google. We need technology? Let’s check out what the Japanese are doing now. We need to assert something but we are unsure? I’m sure some foreigner already said this. Let’s quote him. On this note, even our own Supreme Court has the instinct to systematically look into the US Supreme Court to justify its decisions. [For that matter, why not rely more on Latin American courts for precedence?]

Is copying necessarily bad?

Is this feeling necessarily bad? I don’t think so. In fact, it is a natural phase of institutional development. While morally hard to defend in itself, the emergence and persistence of plagiarism is actually a signal that something good is happening. This is merely a signal that we are in a phase where it feels natural to “copy” ideas as we learn and assimilate foreign knowledge. DOT or its contracted party may have felt that they have much to learn from Poland’s tourism branding strategy, and decided to adopt the idea and “indigenize” it – and later, to improve on it.

In fact, the “copy-and-improve” approach is seen as very Filipino – the culture of innovation and improvisation is very much in the Filipino spirit of the current era, being associated mostly with the entrepreneurial zeal and humility. Filipinos are really not that sensitive of copy-cats.

A particularly useful story on ruthless copying would be that of Samsung of South Korea and Sanyo of Japan. Samsung started as merely a supplier and assembler of Sanyo. But Samsung had been ruthless in reverse engineering, and had systematically, unilaterally copied whatever it is that they actually assembled. The result is, a Samsung that has transcended from being an Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) firm to a globally-competitive (even more competitive than Sanyo) Original Brand Manufacturing (OBM) corporation. Had there been a phrase “Samsung, learning from Sanyo” in the company’s motto, not only would that have been ridiculous, that would have been disastrous.

But even Japan itself, in its early industrialization phase, had been unscrupulous in copying American technology and producing better versions of American products. In fact, the practice has widely been criticized as merely focusing on “operational” rather than “competitive” advantage – that in the long run it is anti-innovation. [Whether this is true or not is yet to play out, but there are many things have to be considered, such as the language barrier which may have prevented to widespread adoption of Japanese “symbolic” technology].

Photo taken from here.
If we want a more recent example, we have only the most dynamic economy to look at: China. Known before as a center of global piracy and imitation of branded products (churned out of its sweatshops and factories), China is now beginning to look at its humongous domestic market as a testing site for its newly developed products and innovations after gaining strides in increasing productivity and citizens’ take-home income. How did it increase its productivity? It did so by brain gain. When its intellectuals left China for abroad, they gained important knowledge from the West. During the Deng Xiao Ping’s rule, many of these intellectuals returned armed with foreign technology. Imagine what China will be if its products will contain “Powered by Manufacturing 2.0, obtained from Germany”.

There. Ruthless copying, without attribution if I may add, has been responsible what we come to call for these countries as “leapfrogging”. Relaxing rules for attributing ideas obtained from the outside has had the effect of “technology transfer”. All of these countries underwent a period of pervasive national impulse to copy what they can what they view as good from abroad. Again, not much different from a toddler who eagerly copies whatever actuations his parents might have. It is a natural necessity for early development.

Copying: Colonial Mentality or the End of it?

That sounds familiar right? It does because it is called by some as “colonial mentality”. I have a different opinion on this. I think, it is “colonial mentality” is when we refuse to copy because of an intrinsic feeling that we can’t do it. Colonial mentality begins when we look at ourselves, call ourselves not intelligent enough, and just depend on foreign entities to supply as with goods and services produced by ideas collectively developed by the global society.

Viewed in this manner Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) then becomes the highest form of colonialism. Akin to “kicking away the ladder”, IPR is used to limit the use of an idea by its originators, or compel the user to remunerate the originator – often at a pricey amount. Because really, is there any other term by which you can call the attempt to stop Indian pharmaceutical companies from manufacturing drugs originally produced by TNCs other than colonialism?

Back to Plagiarism: Is it’s opposite immoral?

Now that we established that copying is not necessarily evil, we then go back to the subject of plagiarism. Actually, IPR and Plagiarism is born of the same idea – that ideas can be attributed to persons or organizations. Attribution then functions, on the existential level, as a reward and incentive for further production of ideas.  Only, IPR takes it further, asserting that ideas can actually be owned – purportedly because it gives an added incentive, that of monetary remuneration. This assertion has already been rebutted countless number of times, and it has been proven in many studies that ideas are generally generated for its own sake.

But “compelled attribution of an idea to an individual” as a normative concept may be resting on a shaky moral ground. This, for we have to understand that even if ideas are created by individuals, no one person is responsible for the creation of an idea – it is society as a whole which enables individuals to generate ideas. All ideas are generated by an individual from information – mostly ideas – the individual got from other individuals. Ideas are generated by society as a whole.

Moreover, it is society as a whole which lays down the condition that makes it possible for a person to generate ideas. As I write this blog, for example, I am dependent on the baker to bake me pandesal so I can think. I am dependent on coffee farmers to grind me coffee beans which coffee companies will later sell me as instant coffee, without which I may not be able to think straight. To take it further, I wouldn’t have been taught how to write if the jeepney driver refused to drive my English teacher to work.

Plagiarism seen on a new light

Given this, plagiarism can then be seen in a whole new light. Implicitly, we already recognize that all ideas are indebted to other ideas, but we do not need to attribute those ideas to persons or organizations as a moral obligation to persons and organizations. Viewed on this manner, “copying with attribution” takes on a more functional role, that of only tracing the evolution of ideas (akin to content analysis). A person then attributes “absurdism”, for example to Albert Camus, not for Albert Camus, but because it is convenient to do so since Camus operates in a set of ideas related to “absurdism”. This is even easier for the natural sciences.

So what should be our take on “Pilipinas Kay Ganda” plagiarizing “Polska”? Well, the proper answer should be: “so what?” If the answer to the “so what” question is that foreign markets are actually sensitive to plagiarism, then we should go ahead and change it. Otherwise, why should we? Copying and improving is a natural instinct of developing nations, and isn’t there an oft-stated cliché that copying is the best form of flattery? Poland has actually all the reasons to be flattered.

Plagiarism is a sin only on a functional sense, but again, that it is a moral transgression must be reevaluated. Intellectual integrity does not begin with attribution; it begins with acceptance that after all, no one person is responsible for any idea. In the end, the whole notion of intellectual attribution can actually be replaced by the invention of the hyperlink.-30-


La Liga said...

dear james,

i am all for open source materials as well as copy free materials. but acknowledging the appropriate sources and proper referencing is not just a matter of establishing the evolution of ideas. it is a humble acceptance that one has adopted, innovated from and/or improved on ideas and positions gotten from someone else's and not passing it off as one's own.

i see your point that "copying" maybe a step to innovation. but "copying" without referencing or acknowledgement of source is outright dishonesty.

if one finds it useful enough to "copy" from anothers' work then it is only fair to acknowledge that persons' work. after all, referencing and acknowledging properly is not a prohibition to copy, it is a basic courtesy that we should accord to one another for contributing to each other work.

Anonymous said...

tol, ang ganda ng article mo. refreshing and unique. pero kailangan din nating isipin na ang intellectual property ay produkto ng capitalistang lipunan. natural lang na humingi ito ng kapalit madalas sa pambayad-salapi kasi puhunan nila ang mag-isip at tumuklas. at natural lang na protektahan nila ito dahil kung walang puhunan wala silang kita.

ngunit may iilan na masayang ibinabahagi ang kanilang nalalaman ng walang kapalit (at least monetary constraint and licensing) gaya ng gnu general public license at mit/bsd licenses.

ngunit kahit sa mga "free" licenese na ito, kinikilala pa rin ang orihinal na may-akda kahit gaano kalaki na ang nabago. ang code ng linux kernel ngayon ( na produkto ng libu-lubong programmers ay totally rewritten na mula sa orihinal. ngunit sino pa rin ang kinilala nating lahat na may-akda nito? walang iba ang source - si pareng linus, kahit napalitan na ang mga linyang inalagay niya.

balik sa dot logo, wala namang na-improve, dinagdagan lang ng mga palabok. kung sa source code, pinalitan lang ang pangalan ng mga variables at dinagdagan ng ilang useless lines para humaba at magmukhang bago.

hindi justifiable na normal process of a developing economy ang kumopya ngunit i-ni-innovate naman. una walang innovation ginawa. pangalawa, di-nenied pa ang source, walang credit na binigay. this is clearly theft.

tama ang sinabi mo tungkol sa japan. sa meiji restoration ang slogan nila "western technology, japanese spirit." ina-dopt nila ang kanluraning kaalaman at tinaniman nila ito ng puso't diwang hapon. ang bunga nito ay kaunlaran sa kanila.

balik ulit sa dot logo, walang (positibong) diwang pilipinong makikita. bagkus, makikita rito ay katamaran. at ano ang salitang "gandah"? wala ito sa kahit anong talasalitaan.

so sa tingin mo, isang indikasyon ng kaunlaran ang ginagawang plagiarism ng dot? =\

James Miraflor said...

Dear La Liga:

Thanks for reading!:-)

I agree that IPR is different from discussing plagiarism. What I did was just discuss its common root - the idea that ideas come from individuals - and attack it. On hindsight, I should have separated the discussion on "idea as property" essence of IPR and "idea as originating from individuals" essence of the concept of plagiarism. This would have clarified things better.

As I argued in the post, I believe that the ideas are a product of society. This is actually not a moral argument, but a philosophical one. For we actually have to ask: Where do ideas come from?

Now this stems from already a long debate on the origin of ideas. On this, there are two possible answers. One answer is that it comes from the brain (or more accurately, the neocortex). The brain processes the patterns it senses from reality, in a process called perception, forms new patterns and analogies based on this inputs, these new patterns and analogies we call ideas. The other is that on top of the brain, there is this what can be called as mind that is outside the physical - that determines individuality and that is independent of outside reality.

This debate is familiar because it is the long standing philosophical debate between the "idealist" and the "materialist". The idealist believe that thoughts spring from individuals because there is something that separates "mind" from reality (some, like extreme forms of existentialist, even assert that reality is made by the mind). Thus, an idea can actually be ascribed to its originator. The materialist reject this and believe that because the brain is part of reality, that it is impossible to bring forth an idea "out of nowhere". And because ideas are also generated by other brains, brains are dependent on other brains and physical experiences into bringing into fruition other ideas.

Now, we take this to its practical conclusions. An idealist would naturally assert, eventually if (s)he keeps her/his logic, that ideas are owned by the thinker - that an utterance or use of that idea must have an attribution to its thinker. Taken to its logical extreme, this may even mean financial compensation, but that isn't necessary. Nonetheless, an idealist thinker would claim an idea as "originating" from her/him, because there is something that sets her/him apart from reality.

A materialist would answer that since all ideas arise because individuals have interacted with society and with nature, that ideas cannot be attributed to individuals. Thus, the open source movement. Ideally (sorry for the ironic term), a materialist thinker, would not be jealous or hurt that an idea (s)he purportedly first uttered is not attributed to him, because (s)he would understand and accept that anyway, (s)he wouldn't have thought of that idea without being exposed to reality - that reality defines her/him. Because really, why would we need to know who invented the wheel?

I am leaning on the latter. Of course, having been raised in society with strong idealist impulse, we will all have impulses that will define our value system. But it need not be that. If anything, the open source movement is already a step towards a new value system that is closer to materialism. "Ideas as commons" may actually be a few decades still away from us, but it may be that we're beginning to see a paradigm of the future. At that point, the concept of "respect" and "courtesy" to the original purveyor of an idea may have already been rendered obsolete.


James Miraflor said...


Tol, naalala ko tuloy ang sinabi ni Bakunin (pero di naman ako anarkista, hehe), that all property is theft. Pwede nating i-extend ito, at sabihing all theft begins with the presence of property.

Dito ako sa puntong ito nagsisimula. Kung ituturing nating "pagnanakaw" ang plagiarism, it means we are implicitly acknowledging that ideas are properties. Pero ang sagot ko kay La Liga ay nag-go beyond na dito. In fact, ang assertion ko nga ay ideas cannot be solely attributed to individuals - doing so may be an injustice to the whole society and nature.

Kung kailangan man ng attribution, para sa referencing lang talaga ang nakikita kong function.

Pero syempre, me pag-amin naman na malayong-malayo pa ang ganyang pagtingin sa kasakuluyang umiiral na sobrestruktura ng pagiisip at kultura. Di pa ito maaaring magamit para hamunin ang konsepto ng IPR. Maraming argumentong pwedeng gamitin para roon.

Pero ito sa tingin ko ang pag-iisip ng kinabukasan, na dapat nating abangan.

James Miraflor said...

I just want to share comments by my friends from Facebook:

Primo Morillo: hmmm... maganda sa argumento. pero 'yun nga ba ay progreso o regreso?

ilang henerasyon na ng marxista ang nag-debunk sa ibang "marxista" o rebolusyonaryo hinggil sa pagpigil sa progresong panlipunan mula sa panahon ng luddites at swing rioters hanggang sa panahon ng mga modernong anarkista.

bisitahin nating muli kung ganap ba ang kritiko ni marx sa lahat ng uri ng pag-aari? o 'yun nga lamang bang sagabal sa progreso ng lipunan tungo sa pagkakapantay-pantay?

babalik ulit tayo n'yan sa usaping ang brief mo ba ay magiging pag-aari ng lipunan pag nakamit na ang sosyalismo?

Juan Maralita: ang brief ay personal na pag-aari at hindi kasangkapan sa produksyon, ngunit ang pabrika, makina at lupain ay pribadong pag-aari ng mga kasangkapan sa produksyon, kaya ang brief ay hindi pag-aari ng lipunan, ngunit ang pabrika, makina at lupain na ginagamit sa produksyon at pinagtutubuan ng kapitalista ang kukunin upang maging pag-aari ng lipunan pag nakamit na ang sosyalismo

Anonymous said...

How can i ask you for more details? Great post needda know more....