On Tiefing

There’s an old Bahamian proverb that goes something like this: “Tief tief from tief make God smile.”

Well, when He looks down upon The Commonwealth of The Bahamas some days, the good Lord must be grinning from ear to ear.

I’m not just talking about your typical kind of tiefing here. We all know that certain material possessions are part of the public domain. From flowers on gravesides to toilet paper in offices to new-brand garden furniture, the owners are roving, ready to collect.

No.

I’m talking about intellectual property here. I’m talking about the tiefing of ideas.

This is a concept with which I dealt often when I was a COB lecturer. As a teacher of English, one of my jobs was to assign research essays to students. The process worked like this: students had to go and uncover information about topics that interested them and then write an essay about it. But in so doing they had to be mindful of three things:

1. Where they got their information;
2. The author of that information;
3. Showing where the information stopped and their own ideas began.

This proved to be extremely difficult for many. For them, “research” consisted of going to a library or the Archives or the internet and copying verbatim what they found there. Or, better, it meant calling a Bahamian expert on the telephone and asking them everything they knew about a topic, and then writing that down.

Sometimes they might be inventive, rearranging the ideas a little bit, quoting one or two passages and incorporating the rest into the body of the paper. Sometimes they would not be inventive at all, but would simply download the information wholesale and submit it as their own work.

They’d be hurt and confused when I’d give them a zero for these essays and threaten to report them to the Academic Board.

You see, there’s such a thing as intellectual property. These days, it’s the most lucrative kind of property there is. We live in the information age. Wealth no longer rests in the hands of the persons who own the factories, who move cotton or coal or steel. The Jet Age is long gone; the Concord has been grounded. No longer is it important how fast a person can get from point to point, whether a plane is capable of breaking the sound barrier or not. Even the ability to launch men and women into space is no longer a crucial skill. Whether or not we can travel light years or move at warp speed is immaterial; we can send data at the blink of an eye.

Knowledge is most certainly power; and the person who “owns” information is in a powerful position indeed.

This is why the stealing of intellectual property is punishable. In college, it’s called plagiarism and can get a student expelled from an institution and blackballed by any other. In the real world, it can get a person stripped of his or her degree and fired from his or her job.

It can get a person prosecuted for fraud. It can get a person sued, successfully, for breach of copyright, and ordered to pay the owner of the idea whatever a court decides is the appropriate payment.

Ideas — and particularly ideas in written form — are in fact commodities that impart power to the owners. In the university, they are the way by which academics make their reputations, and shape their careers; in the marketplace, they provide artists with a way to earn their living. In today’s world, those ideas themselves, not to mention the words in which they’re expressed, belong to the people who dreamed them up and wrote them down.

They are not public. They do not lie there simply for other people who haven’t done much thinking about the topic to come along and pick up and present as their own.

In the world of the information age, ideas are perhaps the most valuable property anyone can own. This is why stealing someone else’s words, or their song, or their tune, or their design, or their movie script, or their dance steps, is so very serious.

Here’s what really interests me. When we take others’ intellectual property and passing them off as our own, we are in fact saying that our ideas aren’t worth very much at all. They can’t be; otherwise why would we have to tief someone else’s? What’s more, when we steal others’ ideas we seem to suppose that (a) what we’re doing is not tiefing, (b) no one will notice that we’ve copied/downloaded/lifted the idea anyway, and (c) if someone should notice, nobody will care. This supposes that no one’s ideas are worth all that much.

In a small country like The Bahamas, this is a dangerous state of affairs. The more we go around stealing others’ ideas, from their styles of music to their stories to their songs and their words and their designs, the more we are leaving our own ideas open to be stolen. And in this world of globalization, we become more and more vulnerable to that kind of robbery. What we have is valuable because it’s unique. And the more time we focus on tiefing from others, the less time we spend guarding our own.

After all. You know what they say. Tief tief from tief make God smile.