Friday, 31 December 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a..

..plagiarism accusation!

(Note: please see the update at the end of this post.)(Update 2)

Background and disclosure: I work for Forbes India, where I handle a section of the magazine. Also in my portfolio is the fancy-pants new-age designation, "Editor, Social Media." Which means that I handle the magazine's social media presence: our LinkedIn group, our page on Facebook, and our Twitter handle. And I'm part of the team that creates our covers.


Everything I say below this is my own opinion, and should not be construed as being official communication from Forbes India or it editors and stakeholders. My own personal opinion. Not official. Clear? Thank you.

Today, I got a few alerts from friends that someone called @acorn had said, on Twitter, that the latest Forbes India cover was ripped off from another magazine. Here's the tweet: Forbes India Dec 2010 cover plagiarises from Pragati Oct 2010 cover

This made me grumpy. Make that more grumpy. We're handling regular issues of the magazine, plus a new project that we launch in a bit, and it already looked like I'd have no time to do more than raise a glass with friends to bring in the new year before getting back to work. Now I'd have to go find out who this acorn is and what they were wittering on about.

So, acorn is the Twitter ID of Nitin Pai, who identifies himself as the editor of Pragati, The Indian National Interest Review, from The Takshashila Institution. Now that 'national interest' bit rang a bell. It sounded like a name I'd heard and dismissed from my mind a long time ago. (Dismissed on the admittedly arbitrary grounds that it sounded to me like a rip-off of The National Interest, a US-based foreign policy magazine, and people who can't even think up an original name aren't worth paying too much attention to.) Later, smart pals like Amit Varma linking to The National Interest from time to time persuaded me to check it out a few times. But then I found nothing of particular interest to me in what they had to say, so the blog vanished from my mind. Until now, when I learn that it also has a magazine.

And so, to the plagiarism bit. Mr Pai is saying that we stole their original creative idea. That is a very serious accusation, the kind that lawyers make lots of money on. And one that I, as someone who has made a living out of creating original work, take very seriously.

Let's see now. This 'magazine' did a cover in October, in which a muscular man clad in a kurta, waistcoat and Gandhi cap is shown opening up the buttons of the first two items of clothing, to reveal that he is wearing a blue undershirt on which, within a diamond shape, you see the Ashoka Chakra. The headline says, "Time for change."

(Quick aside. Ye learned ones: Doesn't this flout the Flag Code of India, 2002? It says, among other things, "the Flag shall not be used as a portion of costume or uniform of any description nor shall it be embroidered or printed upon cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins or any dress material." Or are parts of the flag exempt?)

Forbes India's year-end issue cover has a muscular man opening up his sherwani to show that he is wearing a blue undershirt on which is emblazoned a red and yellow diamond shape, within which you see the words "Person of the year 2010." The copy says, "Smarter, bolder, stronger, braver, tougher, bigger, wiser. Better. The Best of the Year."

So, if Forbes India is guilty of plagiarism, it must mean that this person that Pragati portrays is an original creation of their...think tank. Let's see now. Have we seen a similar visual somewhere? No, that can't be true. They wouldn't put a fictional American comic book character on their cover in a pose that large numbers of people around the world would recognise instantly , make a few cosmetic changes, and then claim that it is an original concept. So that must mean this is a totally original thought. (But then, one doesn't get the symbolism of this gentleman taking off his traditional Indian clothing to show us his underwear. Maybe they meant Time to Change. You know, "change your underwear, kiddies," that kind of thing. Good lad. Not sure what the point, but I'm all for hygiene.)

We, in the Forbes India team, are pretty clear where we got our inspiration from. None of us had heard of Pragati before today (and, between us, we do read pretty widely). We were paying homage to a hero of our misspent youths. Who was faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Who would zip into phone booths and rip off his street clothes and spectacles to reveal his superhero costume underneath.

Fabulously original? No. We were paying homage to an iconic image, the mild-mannered reporter turning into the Man of Steel. The cover sought simply to convey that our person of the year was, in a way, a super human. Simple enough.

(I'll admit that I don't think it's as good as some of our previous covers. But we have, more than once, played with old tropes to deliver a thought. This recent cover, for instance, paid homage to a classic VW campaign. Inside joke: VW is now the world's largest car-maker; we took delight in twisting VW's original approach, created by the famous Mr Bernbach and his team, to show what we thought Toyota was trying to do. And this cover was a take on a concept that has had many avatars on the Web, but was originally done by The New Yorker (see this image for a reference) back in 1976. More recently, The Economist did a similar cover, about China's world view.)

Still, Mr Pai says we're plagiarists. And Mr Pai is, undoubtedly, an honourable man. So I guess I'll see their lawyers, or communication from them, in the office soon.

Or, perhaps, *gasp* Mr Pai is trying to get some much-needed visibility for his little magazine by making accusation about Forbes India.

Could it be, could it be, could it be?

Naah. Perish the uncharitable thought. Not from a high-minded organisation that aims to be "credible." That unambiguously pursues the national interest "through consistent high-quality policy advisories." They wouldn't do that.

So, perhaps, I should ask my bosses to get the company's lawyers to speak to Mr Pai about slander. What say ye, Gentle Reader?


This evening, I wrote to Nitin Pai. I'm extracting a part of my first email to him.

My relating Pragati's size to the matter was immature, and what is worse, ungentlemanly and irrelevant. I apologise for that, without conditions and without reservations.

(This apology is in my personal capacity, as was my blog post. Like my blog post, it does not have the sanction or approval of my bosses and Forbes India.)

This still stands: Your accusation of plagiarism is completely unjustified. I am, to put it mildly, upset about that, and do not apologise for my conclusions on why you made that accusation

Nitin replied to my email promptly and courteously. We have since exchanged a number of very civil emails and while we haven't agreed on everything, we are finding common ground. Nitin's emails to me are personal, and therefore privileged, and it's up to him to decide what he wants to share of their content.

8Update 2

Nitin Pai had told me why he jumped to the conclusion that Forbes India had ripped off his cover: he knew that a Pragati designer had shown work (but not the cover in question) to someone at Forbes India. I agreed with him that I would very likely have come to the same conclusion under the circumstances. (While I disagree with his tweeting his outraged conclusion rather than contacting us, I have to admit that I might well have done the same.) He asked me to check with our design team. I did, and wrote back to him thus:
I checked with the three people involved with the cover, and all three assured me that they had no knowledge of Pragati. The only Pragati they'd heard of as an entity is the very famous printing press in Hyderabad. I did an extra check with the remainder of the team, just to make sure, and got similar answers.
My design chief says he has seen over 50 portfolios in the last two months (we've been looking rather intensively for a couple of designers), and yes, it is possible that he may have seen the name Pragati in portfolios that he has seen, but has no recollection of it.
I can do no more than offer you our collective word on this. I hope it is enough?

I know that in a situation like this, with hurt professional pride and anger welling up — like this post of mine, for example — it would be easy to dismiss this assurance. Mr Pai has been a gentleman and has taken my word for it. He has since tweeted an apology and an explanation — 1, 2, 3 — and updated his post.

I'm glad we were able to resolve this despite the acrimonious start.

Thank you, Nitin, and good luck to Pragati. Here's to more and better from all of us.



marginalien said...

I say, the accuser's had too much air-time already. Old Kal-El is the original shirt-ripper-off-er and anyone who says otherwise is either too young to know better (I remember a moment of shock when I was in chat with some young thing online -- a British young thing -- who had never heard of Superman. In the 90s. Wow. I didn't feel old so much as Martian) or has experienced a selective lobotomy.

Also, I find -- am I alone in this belief? -- that many people are just ho-hum about plagiarism. One young friend said, "Oh ... does that even matter these days? Originality is so YESTERDAY." So. I dunno. It's both a non-issue and non-true.

Ashwan said...

Certainly looks like both designers used the same clip art to start with. ;)

Rajesh J Advani said...

Peter, while I have a lot of respect for you personally, this post isn't really helping present your case.

Anyone looking at both images side by side will admit that the illustrations are the same piece of artwork, with some modifications.

I haven't read @acorn's accusations in detail, but I doubt he was referring to Forbes India stealing the idea.
I for one, question the similarity in the illustrations.

The simple way to clear your name, would be to show a common source for the original illustration. And show that you have the rights to modify and use it.

If an original common source doesn't exist, then any alternative explanation would help. But this, above, doesn't.

Jagannath Moorthy said...

OK, fair enough, you never saw the cover of Pragati. State as much and move on. It's your word (and though the value of the Indian media people has taken a tumble of late, it probably still amounts to something.

But your assertion that it is a publicity stunt is ridiculous. I think these guys have more grounds for slander than you do.

Girish said...

Note - I am writing this comment in my personal capacity.

I happened to see this plagiarism accusation tweet yesterday(when it was being RT'd on twitter). I read Arcon's blog post (and at that time did not have a link to your post) and had exactly the same reaction as yours (well almost :P).
I was expecting most people on twitter to support and jump to the conclusion that it was a rip off ( habit of supporting the underdog). But to my pleasant surprise almost all/most of them felt it was mere coincidence after reading Arcon's post.

This cover idea has been used in the past by magazines (and there is nothing unique about it), the angle & direction ( subject on right facing left) is also obvious, given the limitation of a magazine cover.

I am still wondering what this special, unique reason is which lead him to believe it was a ripoff.


Nirav said...

Not sure if your designers have an explanation for this inspiration:

1) Latest cover of Forbes (14 Jan 2011)

2) A very celebrated ad of the Economist.

walter said...

Hi Peter,

I don't think your remarks about the content of Pragati were in good taste. In fact, the reason why Pragati has managed to do well in the short time it has been out is because it fills a void which conventional media has failed to plug.

Nevertheless, you are not in the wrong given the larger picture. To level an accusation of plagiarism is something which cannot be taken lightly.

I do not know why the matter could not have been resolved through personal emails in the first place.

The image of Clark Kent changing into a Superman outfit has been adapted innumerable times and is not the only instance of a cartoon/comic image being adapted.

Uncle Sam's famous "I Want you" pose has been used on the cover of pretty much every magazine that I can think of and noone raised plagiarism as an issue then.

This was Nitin's fault tbh but your response kind of aggravated the entire situation.

tbh, Pragati got some publicity out of this (and a potential mention on the Wikipedia page of Forbes India or Pragati awaits) whereas you didn't.

Perhaps you shouldn't have responded at all. Readers wouldn't have been aware of any controversy and even if exposed to the situation wouldn't know what to make it, given that it was a common image.