Afsana looked tense. It was her ﬁrst graduate class at a Bangladeshi university, and this was a review of her ﬁrst assignment. I was an instructor. “How well do you think you did?” I asked as she sat down. “I don’t know,” she said. “I did the best I could.”
She’d done well, actually. The essay she turned in had some eloquent sentences. The only problem? They were copied from other publications. She’d plagiarized—and a quarter of her classmates had done the same. A sign, perhaps, of ‘copydesh’, a uniquely local phenomenon where the lines of creative borrowing and straight-up copying tend to blur.
Plagiarism would have meant expulsion from an American university. But my colleague, a Harvard professor who’d taught in South Asia since the 1960s, was unsurprised. It happens each year, he says, reasoning that most students aren’t familiar with the laws surrounding plagiarism—or even the term itself. “We should just change it to ‘unattributed use,’” he suggests.
Somehow, it didn’t seem so simple. Indeed, Afsana attributed her plagiarism to ignorance; she hadn’t heard the word before starting her master’s degree. She previously trained as a doctor, but in Bangladeshi medical school, copying was not discouraged.
Yet strangely, in some circumstances, plagiarism remains “a huge offense”, my language teacher, Munmum, explains. “[Certain] people consider it highly inappropriate and punishable,” Shawon, another Bangladeshi colleague, adds.
So why the copying? Shawon says it stems from social pressure. Bangladesh has more intelligent youth than university seats, which discourages students from taking risks that might deny them entry. “The thing about being creative and innovative is that you’d be wrong for many times, and then…you will do something great!” he says. “But in our system, if you want to do that, you will be far behind the others.” Once enrolled, students believe career advancement depends on acing high-stakes exams. “Otherwise, they won’t earn money to survive,” Shawon says.
This is nothing new. South Asians who embrace plagiarism draw on histories where copying was considered enlightened. The 2010 book Common as Air describes Srinivasa Ramanujan, a brilliant mathematician who called Hindu goddess Saraswati his muse. He believed ideas stemmed from God, not the property of men. “An equation for me,” he stated, “has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God.” Indeed Islam encourages the hafez, a person who memorizes the Quran verbatim. These ideas are a common good, and copying is important for internalizing them.
Lewis Hyde, the author of Common as Air, takes this notion a step further, stating that people themselves are a common good. “We [Westerners] now live in a world that highly values individualism,” he says. But in South Asia, people are primarily considered part of a community. “It goes to questions of intellectual property because a legal regime begins with the assumption that individuals can own their work.”
Indeed, researchers of qualities like self-esteem have been ﬂummoxed by Bangladeshis who don’t respond to the word ‘self’. Bangladeshis don’t fear plagiarizing any more than people anywhere fear stealing from themselves.
If this seems like a blurred line, consider shifting rules on reuse in the West. Legal briefs for courts as high as the US Supreme Court contain chunks of previous texts. Hip-hop samples previous work in cases of fair use, homage, and even genius. Researcher Joanna Blakely attributes the success of fashion designer Miuccia Prada to such rework. “Prada’s genius is that she can root through the history of fashion and pick the one jacket that doesn’t need to be changed one iota to be current,” she says.
Internationally, our conception of borrowing, copying, and sharing is shifting toward openness. Creative Commons licensing aims to “maximize digital creativity, sharing, and innovation” by explicitly allowing others to use your work. Certain circles use the word ‘copyleft’ for open sharing, a play on the legal term ‘copyright’.
So what about ‘copydesh’? Amid Bangladesh’s swift development, innovation is increasing in tandem with the country’s more open notion of intellectual property. But freedom is challenging in a society where shared identity has always been the norm. “There’s a lot of creative talent in Bangladesh,” Munmun says, describing musical innovations that come through new renditions of traditional Bengali folk music, which she’s sung for decades. In the end, creativity isn’t just about avoiding plagiarizing—it involves being an individual, distinct from the group, alone.
Back at the exam review, Afsana was ready for another try. “Do the essay again,” I said, encouraging her to write her own words. “Okay,” she said, rising up to the challenge.