RACY CASES -35 Cut, Copy and Paste.


A V Vedpuriswar and V Pattabhi Ram

“If you copy from one source, you are guilty of plagiarism.  If you copy from several sources you are lionized for researching.”  As the class smiled, at his borrowed witticism, Service Sam added, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I want neither”.  Did he want neither ladies nor gentlemen to be present in the class or was he wanting neither plagiarism nor research wondered Debbie, the baby faced topper.

It was then that the professor dropped his bombshell.  “Folks, your summer project reports must be hand written, not word processed!”  Sam was known to go bonkers but Boka felt that the professor had exceeded even his known levels of eccentric behavior. “I dislike cut-paste jobs,” said Sam, offering it as some kind of explanation for his bizarre requirement.  At the B School everyone understands cut-paste.  Professors equate it to copying.  When a new book appears in the market, people are known to remark, “It is a cut paste effort”.  When someone turns out to be a prolific writer, people mention that he is good at doing a ‘cut paste’ job.

Sam went on to mention that if the option to “cut-paste” existed, the credit had to go to Microsoft, the global software giant.  When working with Microsoft applications, one could ‘cut’ a portion and ‘paste’ it wherever required, in the same file in the same folder, in a different file in the same folder or in a different file in a different folder.  While working on a LAN, one could cut paste entire folders from one address to another.  But today, the term has negative connotations.  Phew.

Boka felt that Sam was throwing the baby along with the bath water.  Not just that. He felt that there wasn’t anything really wrong with cutting and pasting. And that, down the ages, people had been rewarded for this play.  “Sam, I disagree with you.  Look, even innovation isn’t invention”.  The class sat up.  Boka taking on any professor was always a treat to watch.  “Come again,” said Sam, a shade irritated.

Flowers (because he always wore a flowered shirt) decided to join the slanging match.  “Sam, innovation is less of serendipity and more of systematic hard work,” he said. A backbencher sounded out, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”.    Goggles (because he always wore Goggles outside the class) had an engineering background and quoted Louis Pasteur, “In the field of observation, only chance favours the prepared mind.” Debbie jumped in, “Innovation is usually not about radical breakthroughs.  In fact, it is often about lifting an idea from one context and applying it in another”.  Boka supported her: “Innovation is about taking a tried and trusted technology to a new market or bringing a new technology to the existing market. It is about applying what has worked in one industry, in another”. Flowers closed out, “in short, the basic approach to innovation consists essentially of “cutting and pasting.” Even the great Thomas Alva Edison did exactly this”.

“Proof,” said Sam.  He believed in facts and examples rather than pompous arguments.  The class of 2006 was ready for it.

Goggles added, “Sam, serious research work in management takes place by “cutting” an existing methodology in one context and “pasting” it in another.  It can also happen by “cutting and pasting” a new methodology on an existing database.  Event studies developed by the great scholar in the area of finance, Eugene Fama, have been “cut and pasted” in several applications of management.  Similarly, game theory has been “cut and pasted” in several research studies.”  Sam wasn’t pleased.  “Specifics, specifics” he said.

Flowers mentioned, “Edison’s inventions were not entirely original. They were extensions and blends of existing knowledge. Edison’s team used its knowledge of electro-magnetic power from the telegraph industry, where they first worked, to transfer old ideas that were new to the lighting, telephone, phonograph, railway, and mining industries. The phonograph blended old ideas from products that these engineers had developed for the telegraph, telephone, and electric motor industries. Edison’s laboratory’s work on telegraph cables later helped its engineers transform the telephone from a scratchy-sounding novelty into a commercial success”. Sam had to agree reluctantly. After all, it was he who had in a different context applauded Edison for delivering on his promise of “a minor invention every ten days and a big thing every six months or so.” In six years of operation, Edison’s team had generated more than 400 patents.

Debbie stepped in.  “The steam engine was used in mines for 75 years before Robert Fulton wondered how it could be used to propel boats, and developed the first commercial steamboat. Nobody had done what Fulton had with that rather local, specific knowledge. He was the first to apply it to the altogether different problem of powering boats”.  Boy, was Service Sam stumped.

A backbencher decided to bring the discussion closer home. “The essence of case writing”, he said, is all about ‘cutting and pasting.’  A case writer, “cuts and pastes” information from different sources”. Boka, an ardent case writer, rose in defense.  “If the data and information are skillfully regrouped, such rewriting can lead to something very original.  Indeed, leave alone violating copyrights, it can create new intellectual property.  Consider an article in a well-known magazine consisting of 20 sentences. These sentences can be rearranged in 20! Or 2432,902,008,176,640,000 ways without changing one word of the article! Not all of these rearrangements will make sense.  But if someone can do the rearranging intelligently, it can lead to a new article that will look and feel far different from the original piece and convey a very different message. And imagine the endless possibilities that exist if we combine different articles and books!”  Debbie added. “Cut-paste can be a creative tool for those wanting to apply ideas from one context in another.  Only when we resort to blatant copying, do problems arise.  But let us not blame the technique.  Let us blame the users”. The class screamed, “Long live cut-paste.  Long live Microsoft”.

It was then that someone delivered the knock out punch. That, Abraham Lincoln’s famous “for the people, of the people, by the people” definition of democracy had its source in a different context in the Bible! As the gong went, Sam walked out a puzzled man.  Hey, where had he gone wrong?



About Pattabhi Ram

A chartered accountant by profession, a writer by passion and a teacher by accidental choice.
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