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SRK, Rowling and the Dummy's Guide to Plagiarism

As William Shakespeare did not say “To plagiarize or not to plagiarize that is the question.” Shah Rukh Khan is in the middle of a plagiarism brouhaha that gets more convoluted by the hour. First King Khan delivered a speech at the National Management Convention organized by the All India Management Association.

Then social media consultant Agratha Dinakaran reported on her blog that some chunks of SRK’s inspiring message were directly inspired from J K Rowling’s 2008 address at Harvard about “The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.”

Next Shailja, SRK’s Chief Digital Strategist (wow, how many digital strategists DOES he have?) got into the act, wagging her virtual finger at journalists “who have no talent” and attempt “to sensationalize a non-story”. She took to her blog to explain that SRK was actually recycling an older speech where he had, in fact, credited Ms Rowling.

 SRK, Rowling and the Dummys Guide to Plagiarism

Courtesy: Reuters and ibn live

To add to the confusion, SRK says he made that speech six years ago, while Rowling only made her speech five years ago. Does that mean SRK could read Rowling’s mind? Or Rowling was really plagiarizing SRK plagiarizing Rowling in a mind-boggling twist worthy of Inception?

Anyway now that everyone is thoroughly confused, here for the uninitiated is the Dummy’s Guide to Plagiarism. ( Please note, in the interest of complete transparency this is inspired by Firstpost’s earlier Dummy’s Guide for Politicians Watching Porn which itself is a riff on the famous series of The Idiot’s Guides to just about everything.

Rule 1. Copy from down the food chain. If you must plagiarize, choose a publication that has very niche readership. In a different language, perhaps. Copying from The New York Times, New Yorker, Slate is usually a recipe for disaster as Aroon Purie discovered when his ghostwriter borrowed from a very popular Slate.com article on Rajnikanth for Purie’s “letter to the editor.” Also, if you are going to rip off someone’s ideas, choose someone obscure and preferably dead. Joe Biden’s 1988 presidential bid fell apart when it was revealed his stump speech had lifted chunks from a speech by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Even in the days before Youtube that was asking for trouble.

Rule 2: The world-famous defense only goes so far. FOR GOODNESS SAKE, IT IS A HARVARD SPEECH BY JK ROWLING, THE EDUCATED PRETTY MUCH EVERYWHERE ALREADY KNOW OF IT! That’s Shailja’s all caps, all-red defense of SRK. Well, for goodness sake, someone gives a commencement speech at Harvard every year. This isn’t Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears. Or I have a dream. Or even Pushpa, I hate tears. An informal survey of our editors revealed none of us knew this Rowling gem which probably proves we are not educated but that’s not the point. The point is the “world famous” defense can really only be used when it’s truly “world famous”- a concept Shah Rukh, of all people, should understand.

Rule 3. If you can cite once, you can cite again. SRK probably didn’t mean to plagiarize. He did credit Rowling the first time he made that speech. But the passage of time does not mean that intellectual copyright lapses and it just becomes his idea. Just because he credited her at Yale does not mean Rowling becomes “she who must not be named” at AIMA. It makes it seem that Khan felt obliged, for some reason, to give credit in front of the foreign audiences at Yale but not in front of the desi ones at AIMA.

Rule 4. Avoid the first person. When SRK says “Let me tell you, poverty is not an ennobling experience at all. Poverty entails fear and stress and sometimes, depression. I’ve seen my parents go through it many times – it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships” it sounds like he is talking about his experience because he’s talking about his parents. In the first person. Who on earth would assume he was subtly channeling Rowling who had said “I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, stress and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships”? By the way, Shailja, there’s absolutely no “flow” problem in saying “As JK Rowling so aptly said in her Harvard speech, poverty is not an ennobling experience at all.” (SRK knows that since he already did it before without any problems.)

Rule 5. Sorry isn’t the hardest word. Plagiarists have a whole smorgasbord of excuses to fall back on. Aroon Purie blamed jet lag and ghost writer. Kaavya Viswanathan blamed her “photographic memory” for the similarities between How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life and Megan McCafferty’s Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings. Fareed Zakaria simply said “I made a terrible mistake . It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault” for not mentioning that some data he had used came from an article in the New Yorker. Cryptomensia was George Harrison’s excuse for My Sweet Lord sounding so much like The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine. Some apologies sound sorry while others sound like sorry excuses for an apology. But dear SRK, “the lines are so famous, it would be silly to think they are not known really” does not even meet the low “jet lag” standard of apologies. Even a simple “sorry, it slipped my mind” would have been plausible.

Rule 6: This is not Bollywood. SRK has the reputation of being a perfectly decent guy but he comes from an industry where the rule of thumb is lift kara de. Our films liberally lift from others but without any acknowledgment of the same. This in no way prevents our stars from getting on the high horse when they feel they didn’t get credit. Bappi Lahiri, he of Jimmy Jimmy fame, grandly accused Dr. Dre of “cultural imperialism” for sampling a line from one of his songs for his hip-hop hit Addictive without credit or remuneration. But Bollywood’s slippery relationship with originality should not be the yardstick here.

Rowling has refrained from wading into this controversy. But she isn’t the only one who should be getting an apology. Spare a thought for those poor starry-eyed folks at the All India Management Association who gave SRK a standing ovation. SRK warned them it was a recycled speech but he didn’t mention he was also reheating someone else’s leftovers. That, if nothing else, is just in bad taste.

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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2013 17:15:49 IST

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