Having earned my living from stringing words together for the last four years, I can say without fear of contradiction that living off writing in Nigeria is no easy task.
The challenge is not only about struggling with what to write about, it is also about finding what angle to approach a chosen topic from. You ponder whether to attack a policy of government because everybody is doing so, or to look at the merit of it and try to defend the seemingly indefensible. You struggle with how much of your personal life should appear in your writing and whether you are not setting yourself up for ridicule by having and sharing your opinion on every other issue, topical or not. In the midst of all these, you struggle with those periods that you just can’t seem to make a noun interact with a verb to become a sentence, that period that we writers refer to as “the block”. Then there are those days you manage, after much struggle, to produce something and then find that it is a piece of tosh not worth a minute of the time spent on it. You trash it, only to begin again and find you are still putting out incoherencies that belie your claim of being a writer.
That a writer should be a reader, is one of the more important mantras that writers learn. However, with deadlines to occupy you for days on end, reading becomes a core, something you struggle to do, but you find the time—you have to. Not that you get compensated for it enough—usually you don’t get compensation at all—but you push on. After all, it is the life you chose, reason why you are not in a bank of anywhere else. So, you dedicate your life to this, becoming a slave to the written word, a hungry slave. You complain, not much though, for this is what the environment, the Nigerian environment, demands: absolute dedication with little by way of rewards.
With all these in mind, it is understandable that writers, every creative person, get pissed when the product of their struggle is treated like public property. Intellectual theft they call it, but it is akin to robbery and like all forms of robbery, is a crime. Only, this crime rarely gets punished here. The laws are not lax about it, far from it; the Nigerian law does spell it out in simple words: intellectual property theft is a crime.
So the question is this: why do people find it difficult to respect the intellectual properties of others?
Many say this is a product of the blogger generation, which encouraged copy and pasting as a way of life. Some of the more popular bloggers in Nigeria make a lot of money by just copying and pasting whole or excerpts of people’s articles. You may say creativity have gone to the dogs, but there is no truism in that statement, creative people are still out there, churning out the work that people shamelessly steal with no apologies. It is now an accepted thing for people to set up websites, blogs and what have you, with no plans of how to generate content for them. Now, that is not true. they do plan to generate content, from other people’s sweat. They trawl social media, copying stories and pasting to their sites, most times without attribution, or even trying to rewrite the stories. They copy, they paste, they upload, they take the glory for another man’s sweat, they get paid, the original writer or creator, goes hungry. Sweet honey pie, life is good; this is the Nigeria you know.
A few weeks ago, I was struggling with a creative writing piece at home. It was afternoon and my TV was on, tuned to a Lagos TV station—for no reason whatsoever. A music programme was on, one of those ones that have a talk show kind of setting. A segment about Nigerian music was on and what the female narrator was saying sounded very familiar to me. It didn’t take me long to realise that it sounded familiar because it was lifted from an article I wrote last year about Nigerian music for Business in Africa magazine where I worked then. Shocked, I looked up the said article and followed the narrator along, word for word, punctuation for punctuation, grammar miss for grammar miss, as she used my article as script. I was so mad I did not think of recording the show until much later and then it was already too late.
Then a few weeks ago, I was shocked when a friend informed me that a review I did was running under another persons by-line in a national newspaper. Not again, was the first thing that came to mind. I decided to fight this time, to go to court, to seek redress. It took me a week to get redress. No, I didn’t go to court, I decided to be content with the fact that the review was rerun under my name and that the person responsible apologised. It was a magnanimous act on my part, I think, even as I hope I never have to go through same thing again.
But plagiarism, the name for this type of theft, has always been with us, people have even gone to court to demand redress from people who stole their work in the past, and it is time someone goes that route again.
I won’t deny that the internet operates a different set of rules, but the fact that the same story, with same wordings and arrangement, runs in BBC and CNN, is no justification for bloggers to copy from other people without attribution. Fact is, CNN, BBC and others, buy their stories from the same source, usually Reuters News Agency or AFP (In Nigeria, we have News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)) and these agencies sell rights to run stories sourced from them the way it is. These media outfits even show where the stories are coming from. So next times when you see a story start with “somewhere, date, Reuters” don’t get it twisted.
Can we change the system? I don’t know, I can’t say, but I know it is time we call the people who indulge in intellectual property theft by their real name: THIEVES.
Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu