CopycatsBy Conrado de Quiros
Philippine Daily Inquirer
It’s gotten a lot more hilarious. Hector Villacorta, Tito Sotto’s chief of staff, says plagiarism is no big deal, the Senate does it all the time. That is so particularly with old bills that were not passed into law: Senators just repackage them and put them out as their own bills. “Copying is a common practice. Why do you need to think of a brand-new measure when a good one that was not enacted already exists? Why reinvent the wheel?”
In fact, plagiarism is no big deal not just with bills. We copy all the time. “We plagiarized the US Constitution. All the amendments became our Bill of Rights. But do they call us a plagiaristic country? No, because the law is based on precedent.”
Villacorta goes on: “The Bible reached us today because the monks copied from the Greeks. Everything really started from a little copying. Even our image was copied from God. We are all plagiarists.”
You are rendered almost speechless by this. But sorry Hector, no, not really.
To begin with, it’s astonishing that Sotto’s office, which at one point headed the Senate committee on intellectual property rights, should be clueless about the differences between borrowing and infringing, between retelling and plagiarizing. Indeed, that it should be clueless about the difference between folk, collective or anonymous authorship and specific, individual and proprietary authorship.
The difference is patent. You copy the idea of the iPad, you’ll be fine, legal or otherwise, as you can see from the plethora of tablets crowding the market. You copy the specific design of the iPad, you are going to have problems, as you can see in the legal battles Samsung and others are fighting with Steve Jobs’ favorite company. You tell the story of Perseus and Andromeda and Pandora or any of the other Greek myths and legends, you will be guilty only of Western fetish. You tell the story of Perseus and Andromeda and Pandora using the words of Thomas Bullfinch without attribution, you will be guilty of plagiarism.
You copy the entire US Constitution word for word, only the nationalists will mind. You copy the “Star-Spangled Banner” word for word, not only John Stafford Smith and Francis Scott Key will mind.
As to pirating previous bills, who the hell cares if senators and congressmen copy them left and right without attribution? They can only be guilty of unoriginality or bad taste, the latter owing to the fact that surely there must have been good reason for the bills not having passed in the first place?
I did say something similar when Supreme Court Justice Mariano del Castillo’s friends flew to his side and said it was common practice for justices to raid previous decisions and lift entire portions of them. Who cares? But it is one thing to do that and quite another to lift word for word a legal opinion on comfort women by a definite author without attribution. The first again is just bad taste, the second is plagiarism. What makes Del Castillo’s crime all the more heinous is that he did not just plagiarize, he twisted the author’s, Evan Criddle’s, words to mean the very opposite of what he did. Criddle argued that the State had the right to prosecute the case of the comfort women abroad, Del Castillo argued (using Criddle’s own words) it did not. That is foul.
God in fact might object in the same way to our claim that we were made in his image and likeness. “If you’re going to plagiarize,” he might thunder forth, “Plagiarize correctly and not the Del Castillo way. What you are is definitely not my image and what you do is definitely not my likeness. It is the opposite of them!”
But whether it’s just copying ideas or downright plagiarizing them, Villacorta’s justifications only show us how wretched things have become. The plagiarizing shows the depths to which this country’s respect for writers, never mind for authorship, has plunged. The people who have been caught plagiarizing have blamed their staff for it, as though they were not themselves ultimately responsible. But even if we grant it, why in God’s name did Tito Sotto, or indeed Manny Pangilinan, with all the millions at their disposal hire writers whose talents lay only in the capacity to raid other people’s works? Or worse, pa-plagiarize na rin lang, prefer to plagiarize Oprah Winfrey and a blog from the Internet to advance their causes instead of some more substantial author?
You can afford de campanilla lawyers and other consultants but only pipitsugin writers? Serves you right.
The “mere” copying, on the other hand, shows how little we’ve advanced from the stage of imitating and aping and mimicking. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery to the imitated, but it is the shallowest form of accomplishment for the imitator. We’ve always been known as a people with an extraordinary talent for mimicry, we’ve never really been known—Edsa aside—as one with an extraordinary talent for originality, Villacorta’s assertions can only deepen that impression.
If it’s true that senators in particular and we in general just copy and copy, then we’re in very deep organic fertilizer. That isn’t comforting, that’s alarming. That’s so whether or not the copying represents borderline or outright cases of plagiarism. It’s one thing not to reinvent the wheel, it’s another not to invent anything else. Senators are there to inspire and uplift us with original thought, and show us the best we can be. They are not there to parrot, pirate and show us we can always get away with it. If Villacorta’s characterization of the Senate is accurate, and it may very well be so, then that not very august body deserves only (to make the proper attribution) Cherie Gil’s withering line in the movie “Bituing Walang Ningning”:
You’re nothing but second-rate, trying hard copycats.
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