Plagiarise This!

Borrowing is an important part of the creative process. Shakespeare’s genius was often shown in his interpretations of earlier stories. It’s a process more obvious in art and music than in literature. Even the tools used are part of a millennia-long creative process, beginning with the birth of language, painting or rhythm.

Stories, ideas and sounds all belonged to a melting pot of culture that was owned communally. Shakespeare was paid for writing and performing his plays, but anybody could take his lines and use, mutilate or transform them into something new. A whole host of William-Shakespeare-wannabes strutting their stuff on the boards of Stratford, borrowing ideas and icons from their mentor. Plagiarism we might call it today.

The problem in this stream of creative endeavour is how to reward individual effort. There is little point, particularly past the era of feudal or royal patronage, in developing a concept only to have some upstart steal it as his own. This is where copyright (hereafter known as the Big C) comes in. The Big C was designed to help protect creators and ensure that they received credit and financial rewards from their work. The original Big C lasted 14 years. It could be shared between a creator and a corporation, but after 14 years, rights went back to the creator. He or she could then choose whether to renew their copyright, or to let the work fall into the commons, to become part of the public domain.

After 28 years, it entered the public domain for keeps. The time period was stipulated, why the monopoly on use of the work was limited, to help stimulate creativity.

And the Big C works. To some extent too well. Because what started out as rewarding individual creators has morphed into rewarding corporations and companies. Copyright in Malaysia, for example, is granted for 50 years, depending on the time of publication, up to 50 years after the death of the creator. This is beyond allowing fair reward to the creator. It is keeping works out of the public domain for an extraordinarily long time, longer than most creators can expect to receive rewards for their work.

To plagiarise myself from the Centre for Independent Journalism’s website, these are the problems of the Big C:

  1. It removes material from the commons.
  2. It stifles creativity. How does one define the beginning and end of a work of art? Sampling is made illegal, and traditional forms of music or literature are changed by the ownership of lyrics and melodies.
  3. Thanks to the concentrated ownership of copyright, most of the returns go to corporations, not artists.
  4. Corporations are more likely to push for a few big stars rather than encouraging grassroots creativity. (Easier to control, easier to market).

Also, work is automatically copyrighted. As soon as I hit the save button on my computer, this article comes under the Big C. But I might not want that. I very rarely want that. I don’t want people to be penalised for using my work for non-commercial purposes, for example. I’d like to be able to say to all schools, universities and colleges, go ahead, incorporate my work into your lectures. Don’t bother with the Big C, I’m not going to take action.

Under existing legislation and rules in Malaysia, we can’t do that. But, come November, there will be a way of doing it. It’s called Creative Commons. This is a bundle of licenses that allow creators to allow others to use their work under some restrictions, but without having to call up and ask.

It’s an exciting idea. It doesn’t supplant the Big C but it allows creators more flexibility in how they offer their work to the public. It allows you to say, permission has been granted for you to use this work. There are currently four different Creative Commons (cc) licenses.

  1. Attribution: If people use your work, this contribution must be attributed to you.
  2. Noncommercial: Your work can freely be used for noncommercial purposes. For commercial use, the potential user must contact you to negotiate.
  3. No derivative works: Your work must be distributed and used as you created it.
  4. Share alike: If you use my work, then your final product must come under a similar license.

There are some stumbling blocks with the Malaysian process. First off, some amendments have been suggested, all of which would mean that the user of a work either has to refer back to the original creator OR they can’t use the work. Seems to negate the point of having a Creative Commons framework in the first place.

Secondly, there is the problem that very very few people have any idea about what Creative Commons is. The Multimedia Development Corporation is hosting the project and held their first public hearing this Monday, 22 August. The audience was artists, publishers, copyright protection agencies and academic institutions. All have a stake in the issue, but none (except for two!) knew anything about the idea or the movement. This wouldn’t be a problem if there was an adequate timeframe for public input. But the MDC want to launch the Malaysian licenses in November.

This means that people who are interested in contributing need to get up to speed fast. Not too difficult. Check out, and the Reading Room in The former has cartoon clips that take you through the development and use of little CC licenses. The latter has a backgrounder on the little cc written for a Malaysian audience. Then get on the discussion list. Visit to join or just post your thoughts or queries in the space below.

This is one of the most exciting developments on intellectual properties rights in a while, and one of the few that seems to be dictated by a need to encourage home-grown creativity, rather than protecting the intellectual property rights vested in large, multinational corporations. The arts community can help shape this in ways that ensure maximum flexibility, choice and creativity for them.

Singer-songwriter Pete Teo, who offers his songs to be downloaded, has this to say: “Traditional intellectual property rights often makes it cumbersome for rights owners to promote and disseminate their creative work. CCL strikes a flexible balance between protection of intellectual property rights and the pragmatic need for creators to disseminate and share their work in a cost efficient manner. For independent producers of creative work looking to overcome big media’s stranglehold on content distribution, the CCL is one of the most crucial tools to adopt. This is especially so for those looking to leverage on the viral distribution capabilities of the internet. Ultimately, it may well be the legal basis upon which internet content distribution is built in the future.”


Sonia Randhawa is the director of Centre for Independent Journalism

First Published: 24.08.2005 on Kakiseni

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