Malcolm Gladwell on intellectual property extremism.

Thoughts on Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw – part 1

This week, sildenafil Beg to Differ is savouring the new book by Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell, pharmacy What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures. It’s really, really good (duh, it’s Gladwell). All the essays are from New Yorker Magazine, and in typically Gladwellian style, every page sets off fireworks in your neurons, lighting up a new part of your brain with every thought. So, since we’re thinking about this stuff anyway, we thought we’d share some thoughts. Today: is there really such a thing as “intellectual property”?

Oz Cover
Cover image "borrowed" (stolen?) from the Australian edition of What the Dog Saw

Essay: Something Borrowed. Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?


In this essay, Gladwell begins by discussing a strange case of “plagiarism” involving an earlier article he had written for the New Yorker.  Seems a  Broadway play called “Frozen” by British playwright  Bryony Lavery “borrowed” lines, ideas, and biographical detail from his profile of Dorothy Lewis – a psychiatrist who studies serial killers. The similarities between the play and Gladwell’s article, and by extension, Lewis’s life, are extensive and unmistakable.

But is this a case of plagiarism? Lewis thought so – enough to take legal action against the playwright. And originally so did Gladwell, who quotes a letter he faxed to Lavery:

I am happy to be the source of inspiration for other writers, and had you asked for my permission to quote—even liberally—from my piece, I would have been delighted to oblige. But to lift material, without my approval, is theft.

I know how he feels (in my tiny-blog-kind-of-way). This was my response a few months back when a blogger informed me in the Comments to my 10 Brand Strategy Lessons from Princess Bride post that she had copied the entire text of my post to her blog:


But for Gladwell, as he thinks it through, and especially after reading, then going to see the play himself, begins to waver before ultimately retracting his objections.

Why? Because, as Gladwell puts it: the play is “breathtaking. I realize that this isn’t supposed to be a relevant consideration. And yet it was: instead of feeling that my words had been taken from me, I felt that they had become part of some grander cause.”

And that’s the problem with “Intellectual Property”

So here’s where I insert my own original content, lest you think I’m simply summarizing Gladwell for the entire blog post. (Malcolm: my fax machine is broken buddy. If you must protest, just leave your comments below).

Gladwell’s genius, here and everywhere is that he challenges all kinds of intellectual extremism. Where somebody else would assert that a thing is black or white, Gladwell shows us how it is not just gray, but a fascinating spectrum of intertwining shades of “off gray”. And then he helps us understand the patterns that emerge, which, like great art, are never quite as clear-cut as we might wish for, but all the richer for it.

In this case, he points out the extremism of our “intellectual property” conventions.  or as he puts it:

“So is it true that words belong to the person who wrote them, just as other kinds of property belong to their owners? Actually, no.”

The playwright Byrony Lavery took Gladwell’s words and made something beautiful and new out of them, and in the process, taught Gladwell a valuable lesson. But is it a lesson we’re willing to hear?

So branders: how about brand names, patents, and logos?

This is where I throw the ball to you. I believe in brand management – how could I not?

But I also believe that the brands we create enter the public domain the moment we create them – or there wouldn’t be any point. I also think we invest too much time on policing supposed brand “infringements” and not enough proactively cultivating positive expressions of our brands.

What do you think?

Out of the Woods? Branding the decade that was.

So what do you call a decade like that one?

So far Beg to Differ has resisted the urge to comment on the Tiger Woods scandal. But a friend posted a story on Facebook today that seemed like a great way to wrap up the year, advice and the decade. Her four-year old asked her out of the blue if he could take down his Tiger Woods poster – after two years on his wall. When asked why, he said “it just seems like time.”  Indeed.

As they say: it's hard to see the tree for the Woods with a driver in the rear view mirror: just one of the many brands that have decided not to invite the Tiger into their new decade.
As they say: it's hard to focus on the tree - or the Woods - with a driver in the rear view mirror: just one of the many brands that have decided not to invite the Tiger into their new decade.

The rear-view mirror: out with the old

The end of the year, or the decade, is of course a great time to reflect, dream, plan, concede defeat, or maybe just take a break from whatever little white ball you were chasing.

But one question burns brighter than any faded Tiger in my mind right now: what do we call the decade that was? Other decades have great names like “the Dirty Thirties,” “The Roaring Twenties,” or my favourite: “the Eighties” (the teenage rugby-pants, new-wave, drama-geek decade doesn’t need another descriptor – at least for me).

A few suggestions for branding the decade just past:

The Woods

Or “the Woodies” if you prefer. Oh those halcyon days when the Tiger was young and seemed infallible. Before we learned the awful truth: that he was all too human… er, actually a major sleaze-ball in his private life. And while that shouldn’t matter, we learned that when you build a brand empire around yourself, that brand is vulnerable to all the same failings that you are – particularly if your brand is built on a false perception of super-human purity.

But the thing I like best about “The Woods”, is that it implies we’re out of them now…

The Naughties

Or “The Naughts”, “the aughts”. Of course “aught” or “naught” are words for zeroes.  My blog-buddy Nancy Friedman favours “the Naughties”. But apart from the Woods, there wasn’t really that much decade-defining naughtiness when you compare it to the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and the “Bill Clintons”. Martin Bishop tallied some more here, but I’m not convinced.

The Zeros

Or the “nothings” Nope. Just too depressing.

The Ohs

Not bad. Positive spin on the zeros, with a touch of surprise and wonder, and perhaps a nod of the head to my old Denim Blues cast-mate Sandra Oh – but that was the eighties again…

The Terror Years

September 11 2001 cast a massive pall over the decade – as did the subsequent war-faring, drum-beating, and hysteria.

The O-amas

This one has a nice hopeful ring to it: we went from the evil of Osama to the fresh hope represented by (and hopefully fulfilled by) Obama. Time will tell on this one.

The Bloggies

Surely the emergence of social media and the democratization of the news cycle – for better and worse – is one of the defining themes. Or at least to the millions of us who blog about such things.

The Happies

Okay, this may just be for me again. But I have to say that this decade – whatever we call it – has been the happiest of my life. I started my branding business in 2000 and have had the privilege to help many dozens of companies, charities, and government organizations humanize their brands. I also got married to an amazing woman, bought a house, had three incredible kids (the diaper decade?), and started a little blog called Beg  to Differ.

It wasn’t all sunshine. I made some people angry, and didn’t always dot all my i’s or even deliver 100%.  But as I look back, I can’t help but feel great about the next decade – whatever we call that.

So as you take down the old posters from your wall, think carefully about what the next decade could become for you, your brand, and your tribe.

My four-word prescription for the next decade:

Keep making it better!

Happy New Year!

Elephants in the room: where Vision statements go wrong

Ancient wisdom on Vision – from blind men

Part 2 on Vision Statements. In examining the many ways that our clients’ Vision statements have gone wrong in the past (and some spectacularly wrong), buy Beg to Differ can almost always sum up the biggest problem in one word: proximity. But don’t take our word for it; take it from an ancient tale of six men who tried to establish a common vision. And failed….


Six blind men write a Vision statement

The story I’m referring to is the Blind Men and the Elephant. Variations are found in cultures across Asia, but poet John Godfrey Saxe introduced it to Europe:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind…
Six blind monks – from a Japanese watercolor illustrating the same story

It’s a long poem (whole text here), but to sum up the action: six blind men approach an elephant and come away with six different impressions. One thinks an elephant is like a tree, one like a rope, one like a snake, etc. And while each of their descriptions is sincerely argued, and accurately reflects their observations, the poet laments that “each was partly in the right / And all were in the wrong.”

Now imagine pulling those six blind men into a room and trying to write a Vision statement.

Describing the elephant: where vision statements go wrong

In the story, here are the mistakes the blind men made – and I’m going to suggest that we make the same ones ourselves.

1) They are all blind (and so are we): When it comes to our own businesses and products, each of us is blind to the big picture – the whole animal. This is equally true of me and my company (note to self: update corporate Web site soon), you and yours, and blind elephant-feelers everywhere: we are all victims of habit, corporate silos, and unconscious vested interests.

There’s nothing wrong with blindness of course. But bringing in a “sighted” outsider can certainly speed things up.

2) They didn’t share their “visions” to create “Vision”: Notice that each blind man worked in isolation before comparing notes with colleagues. Imagine if they all had been talking to each other during the research phase. “What do you mean rope? This seems more wall-ish. Seriously, come over here and check this out… etc.” Wouldn’t they be more successful – and fight less?

435px-Blind_men_and_elephant43) Lack of common reference points: Saxe says that the men “Rail on in utter ignorance / Of what each other mean.” Because of the blinkers mentioned above, we need to check, double check, then write down our common understandings of corporate jargon, nomonyms, and other key language.

4) They ignored the elephant. These blind men SAID they wanted to learn about the elephant, for each to “satisfy his mind”, but they seem more interested in having talking points for the argument to come. Shame none of them examined the elephant’s navel. But then they’d have to take their heads out of their own.

5) Who was the exercise for? Perhaps they would have had more luck if they had a clearer goal in mind of who the customer for this information would be. Then they could test their theories against the only metric that matters: how much does their work help someone else understand the elephant?

6) Description is not Vision: even if all the blind men had been able to articulate a more accurate idea of the elephant, they still couldn’t get the elephant to do anything. For that, they’d need to study behaviour, capabilities, knowledge of how other elephants are being used and trained. And finally they’d need to correct one last mistake…

7) Vision needs direction: The blind men lacked clear goals and an audience. But they also lacked a destination or at least a clear sense of the direction they should be heading  – which is the “north star” that should guide any effective Vision exercise.

But then doesn’t that make this a Mission rather than a Vision? The next post in this series will take on that thorny issue. But in the meantime, we’re still looking for your help: vision stories; examples; thoughts?