Why do we tolerate corporate plagiarism?

THE DECISION to plagiarize was made by the student on a wintry Saturday night within the stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library. He was panicked; the paper was due in a week, and he saw no way out until he encountered an obscure monograph around which he decided to write the paper. He got the paper in on time. He also removed the monograph from the library. Within a week he received a postcard from the paper’s reader. Would he please come by for a meeting? It was important. The reader told the student that he was convinced the paper was plagiarized, and while the student had the right to deny it, the reader would prove to the contrary. Without a doubt. The student left school, and before long, those of us in the high school from which he graduated heard of the incident. Afterwards, I remember seeing him in church, and I thought there was a flatness in his expression I hadn’t seen before.

THIS RATHER dreary, not terribly unusual incident was brought to mind a few weeks ago by a story in The Wall Street Journal. It described consulting companies that cater to corporations engaged in the highly competitive semiconductor business. The mission of these companies is to tear apart the innards of a company’s product and reveal in the process any differentiations that might be imitated. As you might expect, they have a very respectable-sounding euphemism for this practice-it’s called reverse engineering.

This is, after all, a familiar story in business around the world: See what the competition is doing, then copy it and sell it for less – you can do it because you don’t have the investment it took to gain the advantage. You might ask, what are patents for? But these people are not as dumb as the fellow kicked out of Harvard. They copy, but not word for word or widget for widget. Also, there’s an interesting Catch-22 in the semiconductor business as far as pursuing patents is concerned: To apply for a patent often means that a company might have to reveal more information than it cares to. In other words, the information they reveal to protect themselves from being copied can be copied by the competition without penalty.

My point is that up until we graduate, copying other people’s work is a heinous crime. And then all of a sudden it’s not a sin, it’s a valued tactic. You can be around a lot of captains of industry and hear them sing in harmony, “We don’t want to be first.” What do they mean? Unfortunately, they mean, why not let some Gyro Gearloose in his garage figure it out, and then we’ll swoop in and imitate enough of what he’s discovered to incorporate it in our own product. Then we’ll just sit back and look forward to a profile in Fortune or Forbes about our farsightedness.

Perhaps this productivity fix we find ourselves in stems from this inclination to prefer imitation over innovation. Let’s leave the fashion and television industries out of this discussion. In those endeavors, knocking off competitors is so embedded as an accepted way of doing business that it would take an apocalypse to change them. It’s those other enterprises that are more fundamental to our economic well-being that should think about their corporate cultures that encourage plagiarism rather than inventiveness.

Remember that story a few years back concerning Sears and one of its employees who had come up with an idea for a new kind of wrench? As a good employee is supposed to do in the never-never world of personnel manuals, he brought his idea to his employers. They looked at it and ended up giving him a truly modest sum, saying in effect they didn’t think the idea was really that hot, but – what the heck – here’s a check and thanks. But, as it turned out, the Sears people saw its potential and began selling it as only Sears can sell. The employee was disappointed at the unfairness of it and ended up going to court and winning a major award from Sears. You could say whoever was responsible for nickel-diming the employee was just being a good businessman, the old school of getting the most for the least. You could say that, but you’d be dead wrong.

In Chariots of Fire, one of the principals says, “So where does it come from torun the race to the end – it comes fromwithin.” Maybe that’s the key. To trulysucceed in a business or an industry – torun the race to the end – managementshould stop looking over their competitors’ shoulders or in their wastebaskets.They should look within their own imaginations and those of their people for waysto more strongly compete.


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