Several weeks ago, I stared at my screen, mouth agape, as I read my most recent article….on a stranger’s blog. However, this copy of my work had no attribution. Nothing. Even personal life references had been scrubbed off. My article had been blatantly plagiarized. For me, the act signified more than just stealing; it reflected a disturbing trend in today’s society.
We speak often on how the youthfulness of the Nigerian population proliferates creativity, innovation and ingenuity. Theoretically true, but an incisive and brutal look at the creation of ideas and works in Nigeria shows an unfortunate tendency towards the habit of copying. Duplication of fashion, business ideas and literary work has become rampant. Once one person gets a whiff that some new form of business is raking in cash, be rest assured that it will have numerous other copies in no time. Once Shawarma became the ‘selling snack’, every single food vendor began to offer it. Give it enough time and suya sellers on the corners might start offering Shawarma. ‘Gardens’ where beer and fish can be purchased have become the popular business in Abuja. Business centers were once the rage because people heard the money was in it. Other numerous gossip blogs sprang up once Linda Ikeji’s blog found financial success. After the success of Wizkid in the Nigerian music industry, a number of Wizkid clones began releasing songs bereft of any musical originality. And there’s more…pure water business, rolled beef (gala), fish farming business, ecommerce business, suit/jacket making (fashion) business…the list is endless! Clearly, the proclivity to copy seems predominant today.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s normal to expect that a profit-making market with free entry and exit will experience a flood of competition at the first whiff of profit. However, the problem with these trend is the prevalence of what I like to refer to as the ‘photocopy mentality’. I’d like to assume the term’s self-explanatory nature shields it from further explanation, so I’ll jump straight to its issue.
The problem with photocopies is that they’re never better than the original; at worse, inferior, and at best, the same. For example, a photocopy of one’s Driver’s License will never pass for the original. Likewise, simply copying someone else’s idea does little to improve the idea. It changes nothing, innovates nothing and creates nothing. It simply saturates the market with another version of itself. And since mediocrity cannot compete with mediocrity, the status quo remains the same. Such a trend defeats one of the purposes of competition; which is to engender innovation. This is where it’s important that we change the way we see the act of copying.
The act of copying a work should be a process rather than the product itself. TEDx Speaker, Steven Johnson emphasizes that copying is “not about creation but about creating. The process is more important than the final product. A process in which copying can play an important part, because it allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants and to create something beyond your own capacities.” Copying has been integral to the emergence of a significant number of innovations as it cuts down the process of improvement as well as the cost of R&D (Research and Development). As a process, it takes existing creations and improves them. For example, all the products that made Steve Jobs famous already existed before he unveiled his iteration of them. All it took was the ability to copy and improve on the ideas.
There’s a much larger lesson to this. In order for African countries to truly catch up with developed economies, they have to do more than copy ideas. They have to innovate and find ways to optimize the potential of these ideas in Africa. It stops being enough that Africa attempts to reach convergence through the replication of production methods, technologies and institutions of developed countries. Africa needs to find ‘African’ insights to these issues using existing ideas, methods and technologies. Even China recognizes this given that their ultimate goal is the ability to innovate independently. “Chinese firms have realized that they cannot just purchase core technologies; they must create them on their own” says Mark Purdy of Harvard Business Review. Likewise, in a nation like Nigeria saturated with jobless graduates, differentiating oneself becomes imperative. Having a degree from a university only keeps one at the common denominator level of being a photocopy and well…no one notices photocopies.
Hence, one must breaks out of the rote-learning mentality bequeathed to the general populace by an obdurately outdated education system. Start by thinking of ways to improve already established structures by observing, critiquing and brainstorming new ideas.
As highlighted above, photocopies are never improvements, they’re merely copies. Simply being a photocopy takes one nowhere, individually or collectively as a society. Instead, taking an idea and coming up with some thing different – maybe even better – drives society forward. Now if only my plagiarizer realized this and sat down to write something worth reading, we’d all be the better for it…or at least, I would.