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copycat at the photocopy machine wants the pirated software and pirated DVD. I looked for a Thai language, not to get an ED visa, but to learn the Thai langauge. One language school will photocopy its textbook right from another language school. Which school is the original, no one knows?

Home / Economics  /
Photocopying The Copycat

The copy has been photocopied so many times that no one knows or cares why there was ever an original

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 are completed.  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. 

 There 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 this.

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 the studies.  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 ticket. 

 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 Jesus Christ.  I've already heard that news, much too many times to span several resurrections.  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 browser history.    

A day later, I came across the web site of a competing language school.   It, too, had a six module system.   It, too, had elective courses on Thai culture, social problems, customs, proverbs, Buddhism.  The tuition was identical.  So 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 have:  limited 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 someone's house.   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 proprietary property.  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 "tape recorder.”

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  them?   Innovation doesn't normally happen in one grand jump, but in series of small steps.   One business copies another which then copies another.  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 restaurateurs.  Today's coders beget tomorrow's Silicon Valley startups.   An entrepreneur 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 more competition.   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 electives.  It 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 probably photocopies. 

Where I come from, there's more a focus on quality, even if only an illusion.   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 customer's trust.

Here, the clone won't offer anything the original didn't.   If 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 fix it.

The greatest innovation of the next clone pillaging at the photocopier will be to make the cover periwinkle instead of yellow. 

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