On putting a value to a story

…Or to a painting, a photograph, a piece of music, or just about anything created. Even a dish.

I am not often tempted to write essays, and even this one isn’t going to be an extremely analytical one. Rather, a response to something that happened online last week.

To set the scene, a little bit of background. If you see my Twitter profile, I call myself (among other things) a foodie. I enjoy experimenting with food, I like eating out, and I am generally interested in food—what goes into it, its history, and so on. So, when an ex-boss invited me to a Facebook foodie group about a year back, I joined happily. I participate only occasionally, but I do keep an eye on what’s happening. People post recipes, discuss restaurants and food stores, talk about issues related to food, and so on.

Among the most visible are the many recipes that are posted—mainly because many of them appear along with a mouth-watering photo of what the final product looks like.

So far so good.

Last Monday, someone (let’s call her Lady X, for the sake of convenience) posted a recipe. I’ve forgotten what it was for, but the accompanying photo was a stunner. This woman must be a food stylist, I thought. Not to mention a very fine chef. How come I had never heard of her?

A couple of hours later, the truth was revealed. Someone—perhaps with more time to spare, and perhaps less gullible than I—seemed to have smelled a rat. They’d gone searching, and had unearthed the original source of the recipe and the photo. Lady X had not posted one of her own recipes. She had not posted a photograph she had taken. She had merely passed off something as her own.

A furore followed. Lady X’s action was questioned by some (note: some, not all) members. Why had she not mentioned in her posting of the recipe (and the photo) that neither were hers? Why hadn’t she credited the original source? Why had she passed it off as her own (and, mind you, been praised quite a bit for both the recipe and the photo)?

Lady X—and a bunch of ardent supporters—came up with a string of answers, each more incoherent and clutching-at-straws than the last.

1. Nobody minds.

And exactly how many people have you asked whether they mind or not?

2. No recipe is original.

Really? None, whatsoever? I know enough about food to know that there are some classics that have been around, in some cases, for generations. But almost every household, every cook, has their own way of doing something. Some of these don’t work. Some do—and they are what become the great recipes.

Ah, and do try to pass off a recipe from Heston Blumenthal or Alain Ducasse or Marco Pierre-White as your own. And let’s see how amenable they (or any other chef worth his/her salt) are to accepting that their recipes aren’t original.

3.  We’ve put in a lot of effort into finding and trying out these recipes, so what is the problem?

Bravo. And, of course, whoever came up with the recipe in the first place—the person whose creative mind and palate figured it would be a good idea to combine this ingredient and that, cook it this way or that, didn’t put in a lot of effort. Is that right? The effort was all yours.

If you’ve stuck with me so far, you’ll have realized why this struck a chord with me, and why it angered me. I am a writer. I have had some training as a chef, and I have dabbled—albeit on a very amateur level—in painting. I am familiar with the creative process. And I know it isn’t an easy one. It requires sweat, tears, blood—and much toil. You may read a good story, or eat an unforgettable dish, or see a breathtaking painting (or hear a great piece of music, a fine film—the list can go on and on)—but what you, as the audience, gets is the polished, much-worked version. You don’t get to see the hours (or days, months, years) the creator has put into his/her work, the much to-ing and fro-ing, or the many mistakes that were made along the way and have been ironed out.

Does that give you (or, let me change that to ‘we’, since all of us are the audience for something or the other) the right to dismiss the effort that has gone into creating it? Or to try to pass it off as our own? The latter, of course, begging the question: if we appreciate it enough to want to share it, why not let the person who created it share in that appreciation?

On an ethical level, there’s the oft-mentioned thing about this sort of behaviour being tantamount to stealing. I have, I must admit it, found that a little sanctimonious, put that way. But let’s examine in closely. We have all expended effort, time and energy (unless we’ve been lucky enough to be born with the proverbial silver spoons in our mouths) on earning enough to buy what we need. Would you take it lying down if someone walked into your house, picked up something valuable, said it was theirs, and walked away with it?

Why, then, would you be happy to let someone walk off with the accolades due to you from something in which you’d invested a lot of time and effort? Something you’d created?

Try doing it to someone big. Try doing it to anyone who has any sort of solid legal proof that they’re the originators of a work. See what happened to Kaavya Vishwanathan, of ‘How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life’ fame (notoriety may be a more apt word).

Try, even, doing it to a blogger who’s slightly savvy—a plagiarism checker such as Copyscape can quickly and efficiently trawl the net to find instances of plagiarism. While the average blogger, even on finding their work plagiarized, will probably just be content with an apology and a removal of the copy (or an acknowledgement of credit where it’s due), others are not so lenient. A certain film blogger I used to follow copied and pasted huge chunks of a very well-written blog post—and was, shortly after, found out and confronted by the original writer of the material. The excuse—“I was so excited, I forgot to give you credit”—didn’t, I think, fool anyone.

In any case, the fact of the matter is that for a lot of us who do creative work, it’s a labour of love. We do get paid for some of it, but a lot (at least for someone like me) is gratis. It is done simply because I love writing. But that doesn’t mean I’m willing to have people pick up my writing and pass it off as their own. Or borrow it without my permission. Or not give me credit for it. If I could spend hours thinking, writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing, and rewriting all over again (a lot of effort)—surely, the little effort it takes to write to me to ask if you may use my material, is not just ethical, but polite?

But, to get back to that episode of Lady X. The administrator of the group hushed everybody and called a halt to the fight that had broken out. Two days later, Lady X was back—this time, with a recipe for smoked salmon-wasabi tea sandwiches. Within less than two hours of her having posted the recipe, someone had found the original source of her photograph: it was from here. They posted it as a comment.

The response from Lady X’s fans? “How silly and petty u [sic] guys are”.

Today I logged in to see that a someone in the group had written lovingly about the chhole-bhature made by Sita Ram, in Paharganj’s Chuna Mandi. A delicious little article that made my mouth water. Since it didn’t give the exact address of the place, I went searching on the net, and ended up at Pamela Timms’s blog, where she had given the address, and written about her experience. An experience that sounded eerily familiar.

When I commented that the post in question was copied from Ms Timms’s blog, I got laughed at.

But I will persevere. I may be a lone voice crying in the wilderness right now. I know there are other voices out there, and maybe someday, if we all cry out loud enough, we will be heard. We will at least get credit for what we create.

Someday. Hopefully.

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