You ever hear the story about the
housewife who, every Thanksgiving, trimmed sizeable edges
off the sides of the turkey before putting it in the oven to
bake? One Thanksgiving her young daughter asks her why
she was cutting away so much of the juicy meat, and all the
housewife could say was that this was the way her own mother
always did it to get a wonderful tasting turkey. So
the young girl, not satisfied, asks her
grandmother the very same question and gets the very same
response. Finally, the girl goes right to the source and queries her
great-grandmother. The greater grandmother's answer:
"Our oven back then wasn't large enough for a whole
turkey to fit.”
Recently, the Global Times in
China printed an article about the copycat culture dragging
down China's IT revolution.
Zhang Yaqin, corporate vice president of Microsoft,
said that there wasn't enough innovation going on.
Only twenty percent were doing anything innovative,
as the other eighty percent copied that twenty percent.
In Thailand, where I live, I think the
twenty percent figure is too generous.
Over here, ninety percent would be copying the other
ten percent; and these ninety are ripping off innovators all
over the planet. Entire
industries have been spawned from copycatting.
No local economist
will posit how much of the GNP here is really ripped right
off the innovations of other nations.
A serious and legitimate crackdown could destroy much
of the small scale Thai business sector.
The country is
famous for pirated software and DVD's.
None of this is done under the table.
When I bought my most recent laptop, the store
offered computer models without Windows pre-installed, at a
15-20% discount over similar models with Windows.
These savings were easy to pass on because Microsoft
wasn't being paid a license fee.
For an additional $10, the computer salesman took my
computer to a software outlet across the mall and installed
'illegal' versions of Windows 7 Ultimate, Photoshop,
Illustrator, DVD burning software, etc.
Adjoining this software shop was another outlet
selling the latest movie releases on DVD – of movies that
were currently playing in the theater – for $3.
You could also buy episodes of TV series that had
only aired weeks ago in the US.
In the region, fake Rolex watches,
Louis Vuitton handbags, and Levi jeans are rife.
A few years ago, I was visiting the Russian market in
Cambodia, known for selling goods leaked from the local
factories producing wares for Ralph Lauren, CK, and Nike.
The stuff was cheaper than normal, but since
copycatting is the norm over here, I couldn't be sure if the
goods on sale were legit or copycats.
A few weeks ago I enrolled in an
intensive Thai language course.
The courses are split into six different modules plus
additional elective modules on Thai culture, social
problems, customs, proverbs, Buddhism, etc
after the initial six
The instruction is 15 to 20 hours per week, depending on
whether you broaden your mind in the morning from 8 AM to
noon or in the afternoon from 1 PM to 4 PM.
are more Thai language schools in Thailand, some say, than
native speakers of Thai. If you don't have a work permit or
a wife with local papers, the new fad to stay in the Kingdom
legally for the long term is with a non immigration ED
(education) visa, extendable for up to 12 years.
For adults past university age, this usually means a
Thai-language or culture course.
The last I read, you
only need to pre-pay for 180 hours to cover yourself for a
year's visa, a figure which only amounts to 15 hours of
course time per month.
There are basket-weaving courses more intensive than
Schools have to be accredited by the
Ministry of Education and, officially, report attendance
records of ED visa holders to the immigration department to
prevent schemers from getting the visa without putting in
Many schools use the perks an ED visa provides to lure
prospective students in.
More than a dozen schools I perused online had a link
to the ED visa right on the front page of their web sites.
Such schools would not want to report that Gunter missed his ninth hour that month
when they're fully aware that Gunter and his buddies will
continue their "studies" with the school year after year
after year. On this
measure, schools can operate like gyms, oversubscribing
members knowing most won't regularly show up.
In this climate,
this breeds a lot of pathetic Thai language schools, doing
and expecting the minimum to collect tuition fees that
really amount to a foreigner's long term visa admission
I was recommended one
language school that's been around for over fifty years and
operates with a two-pronged mission.
First, to teach Thai to anyone who desires to use it
for legit reasons.
Second, to spread the rosy news about the savior
I've already heard that news, much too many times to span
That, the distant location from my residence, and the
sole 8 AM to 12 PM class slots were enough for me to exit
the web site and delete any traces of a visit from my
A day later, I came across the web site of a competing language
too, had a six module system.
It, too, had elective courses on Thai
culture, social problems, customs, proverbs, Buddhism. The tuition was
were the first two letters in each of the school's names,
both five letters long and synonyms of each other.
The second school's assets were in what it didn't
teaching hours and Jesus Christ in its mission statement.
I signed up.
One of the students in my class had done a similar course several
years ago at a different school – actually, just a room in
Okay, similar isn't the right word.
An identical course, right down to the same
photocopied textbook we paid $7 for.
The textbook isn't some classic Thai teaching text
all the language schools employ.
From appearances, it's supposed to be the school's
The cover has the school's name and logo, and the
footer the school's address and telephone number.
The textbook my fellow student had used in his
previous course just had a different cover and a different
footer on each page.
So who ripped off whom here?
My best guess is that the Jesus Christ school came up
with the original text and module program.
Teachers from that school eventually left and started
other schools, like the one I enrolled in, shamelessly
ripping off the original textbook without any modifications.
It was evident by day 14 that the textbook hadn't
been revised in years.
Two of that days' vocabulary words were "tape"and
All right. Stealing
from competitors is a normal part of doing business.
Would personalized entertainment systems be common in
airliners nowadays if one airline didn't copy the first
airline which implemented
Innovation doesn't normally happen in one grand jump,
but in series of small steps.
One business copies another which then copies
Customers benefit as a once luxurious feature drops in price
due to widespread mainstream production and competition.
Just think about air conditioners in automobiles.
In 1953, Chrysler installed air conditioning in only
its luxury Imperial model.
Today, any car you buy, even the lowly regarded
Malaysian Proton, has an air conditioning system installed,
and you don't pay premium fees for it.
There's a big difference between copying a pattern of behavior that
can't be patented, such as adding air conditioning to cars
or offering free refills on soft drinks, and ripping off
intellectual property with the photocopier.
Japanese cars up until the mid 1950's were imitations
or derivations of American or European designs.
It was only in the 1960's that the Japanese launched
their own original models, cars with very small engines that
incurred lower taxes.
The Koreans subsequently imitated and derived their
designs from the Japanese up until the mid 1990's before
creating their own unique models.
Imitation is the best form of flattery, and upstarts, wishing to
learn the successful techniques of the masters, copy first
to get a handle on what works before trying to innovate.
It's only after the inner workings
of the creative
process are known that someone can possibly connect the dots
and make a note of what can be improved or changed.
A fresh eye always helps.
It took the young child in the turkey story to
question why the edges of the turkey had to be cut off
before inserting the turkey in the oven.
Now maybe you can understand why I find it so surprising that one
language school would rip off, letter for letter and word
for word, the program and textbook of another and continue
using it, unchanged, for a decade.
A person leaving his current employer and starting a
competing similar business is nothing unique.
Today's assistant chefs are tomorrow's
Today's coders beget tomorrow's Silicon Valley startups.
feels he can bring a special insight, business practice, or
process into the marketplace that his former employer
didn't. Or he
considers that the marketplace is large enough to permit
Whichever the reason, you'd think an upstart would be
trying to set itself apart from what came before, not
package itself to look exactly like the parent.
The turkey got its sides cut off long after oven sizes increased to
accommodate the entire turkey.
Those who came after the original 'innovator' lost
sight of why the innovation was ever created.
When the first copycat language school was spawned
from the original program and textbook, did the director of
the new school (or the directors of any of the clones to
come out of the first clone) ever ask why the textbook was
organized in this way, why certain vocabulary words were
included and others omitted?
I'm figuring they didn't, because if they had, the
textbook would have gradually morphed into something
different from school to school, eventually into something
better and heartier.
The popular American-based Pimsleur language
instruction bases its courses on anticipation, graduated
interval recall, core vocabulary, and organic learning.
Would it hurt for some of Pimsleur's or Linguaphone's or
Berlitz's language-teaching philosophies to creep into
the language course I'm taking?
Might not some of the vocabulary words and sections
be modified over time to accommodate the realities a new
speaker of Thai would need today?
Yeah, if innovation were any part of the process.
Since it's not, the copycats believe the course works because of
these particular words in this particular order taught
precisely in this number of modules with these types of
doesn't help that intellectual property gets no respect
here. If I were
cloning someone else's language program in the US, I'd at
least have to alter the ripped-off textbook enough to make
it appear different from the school I was copying from.
Back in my college
days, before the days of inexpensive home scanners and
photocopiers, I remember that Kinko's refused to allow one
student to photocopy multiple pages from a school textbook
to distribute freely to others.
In Thailand, the authorities would laugh if you
brought a photocopied textbook to their attention as a crime
of intellectual property.
The books padding their own shelves at home are
Where I come from, there's more a focus on quality, even if only an
A business might borrow 90%+ of its core from another, but
then it will try to differentiate itself from the parent on
superior service or a better guarantee, anything to gain the
Here, the clone won't offer anything the original
it ain't broke, the thinking goes, why fix it?
And if it never
worked but is generating profits, there's still no reason to
greatest innovation of the next clone pillaging at the
photocopier will be to make the cover periwinkle instead of