Food

Plagiarism is rampant in Indian food writing – but finally, bloggers have a way to fight it

Social media has worked where the law proved unpredictable.

“We have been cheated,” declared the headline of the blog post making the rounds of social media on April 25. The post, written by Rajkumar Saxena, former head of Mumbai’s Institute of Hotel Management, alleged that passages from his 1997 book on Awadhi cuisine, Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh, had been plagiarised by Sunil Soni, a veteran chef, in his new book titled Jashn-e-Oudh: Romance of the Cuisine.

The blog’s text, like the headline, dripped with hurt and contempt: “Here is a case of… a learned, literate person who has no qualms about unhesitatingly lifting word-by-word the explanations, recipes etc. from [a] book authored by us and claiming it to be his original work…” Images from the two books were embedded to support the allegation. “We need to name and shame such so-called experts through social media. We seek your support…”

The support came almost immediately.

Celebrity chef Ranveer Brar, who had written the foreword for Soni’s book, announced on Facebook that he wanted the author to remove it. Outrage also erupted on the wall of Food Bloggers’ Hall of Shame, a closed Facebook group of 421 members dedicated to fighting plagiarism in food writing and photography in India. “How can people even think that they can get away with such a shameless act of plagiarising?” wrote Anushruti RK.

It was an organic reaction. By blogging about his grievance, Saxena had tapped into the one space that Indian food writers are increasingly using today to redress the alleged plagiarism in food writing – social media.

“As a community, we are now discovering an average of one or two plagiarist websites/aggregators every week,” said Rhea Mitra-Dalal, the administrator of the Food Bloggers’ Hall of Shame, which shares dos and don’ts with members to protect their work. “We’ve had several run-ins with celebrity chefs, big food brands, restaurants, and food businesses, especially on their social media pages, where we have found plagiarised images. Public outcry on those pages has usually worked and we have got the plagiarised content down, but these are episodic and the basic mind-set hasn’t changed: it is fine to plagiarise, just apologise and take it down when caught.”

Cease and desist

Saxena’s blog post was a last resort. He says he had first noticed the alleged plagiarism – “42 recipes, 24 explanatory notes and 12 chapter notes,” according to him – in Jashn-e-Oudh in January, and had informed his publisher HarperCollins India. HarperCollins responded by sending a cease-and-desist notice to Soni, copying his publisher Shubhi Publications, and set three demands: remove the offending material from Jashn-e-Oudh, acknowledge the copyright of the authors of Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh, and pay Rs 5 lakh.

Soni and Sanjay Arya of Shubhi Publications claim they never received this notice.

The cover of the 2015 edition of 'Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh'. Credit: rajkumarsaxena.blogspot.in
The cover of the 2015 edition of 'Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh'. Credit: rajkumarsaxena.blogspot.in

On April 10, Saxena says he got an email from HarperCollins telling him it will not be pursuing the matter further because “currently HCI has put on hold all litigations due to some business-related issues”. “The copyright is definitely in your favour,” declared the email. “You are free to litigate this matter and file a suit for injunction. As far as shaming the authors/publisher on social media is concerned, as a publisher, we cannot opine on that. It is your personal decision...”

So, a fortnight later, Saxena did just that: he took his complaint to the internet.

Around the same time, he and his co-author Sangeeta Bhatnagar sent a legal notice, through their lawyer, to Soni to cease and desist from further publication and distribution of Jashn-e-Oudh, and demanded Rs 15 lakh in compensation.

This time, they got a seven-page response from Soni’s lawyer.

While denying the accusation of plagiarism, the response from Soni’s lawyer said, “Your clients are liable to show their copyright in the alleged infringed work of our client as no copyright can be claimed in the traditional recipes and their preparation as same will be similar across the globe to get the same taste.” It added that no copyright can be claimed on the subject of Awadhi recipes since it is “a common topic and known and available to the general public at large. All the recipes mentioned in the alleged publication are known in the market”.

Soni also denied the allegation when contacted for comment by Scroll.in.

Sunil Soni at the launch of his book 'Jashn-e-Oudh: Romance of the Cuisine'.

Looking West

The reply from Soni’s lawyer makes some sound legal points, all of which, according to food bloggers, are reasons why food plagiarism is so hard to prove: a recipe that is a list of ingredients cannot be copyrighted. Nor can a traditional cooking method be seen as the property of any author. Reproducing these, therefore, is not plagiarism.

However, substantial literary and artistic expressions are copyrightable, according to the US Copyright Office, and reproducing these is unlawful. Another suspect action is when a chef’s work is tweaked by changing just one or two ingredients. In 2012, the Food Network in the US cancelled chef Anne Thornton’s TV show Dessert First, because some of her recipes were only mildly different from those created by superchefs like Martha Stewart.

Bloggers like Mitra Dalal lean on these definitions to call their content original. “Most of us have unique styles of writing, and we often include anecdotes and other content to our posts,” she said. “So copy-pastes can often be quite correctly identified.”

Another useful metric, according to Mitra Dalal, are rules set in more mature markets where bloggers have already fought, and won, battles.

“There are international guidelines for this,” she explained. “Loosely put, if every third word is different, the text cannot be deemed plagiarised. Also, you cannot say that an ingredient list is plagiarised.”

Small wins

Mitra Dalal and other food bloggers often fight their battles outside the court of law, which is good and bad. On the plus side, it’s faster and easier for them to control the context – but on the minus side, the wins are relatively small.

In July last year, for instance, 20 food bloggers alleged that the recipe aggregating app The Frying Pan had plagiarised their work. They lawyered up, and got ready for a legal battle.

“The Frying Pan had published our recipes and photographs without proper attribution, and without our consent,” said Deeba Rajpal, one of the 20 complainants. “We were advised that if we sought compensation, it would be a long haul. So, we only asked The Frying Pan to take our content down and never to use our work again without permission.”

The case didn’t go to court. The lawyers met and reached an agreement, according to Rajpal. “The app took our content down. The case never had a proper conclusion – it fizzled out.”

Except on social media, where the Food Bloggers’ Hall of Shame kept the pressure up, slamming The Frying Pan – hard.

Can Google help?

Proving plagiarism in food writing is difficult at any rate, but there are factors that complicate the matter in India, according to Sunil Abraham of The Centre for Internet and Society.

The copyright law here, he says, has inbuilt exceptions and limitations that protect the rights of stakeholders, including entrepreneurs, content creators, consumers, the public who may not pay for the content, and the government.

Many times, copyright holders in India have conceded or withdrawn legal cases because of limitations to the copyright law or the doctrine of fair use, which states that “brief excerpts of copyright material may, under certain circumstances, be quoted verbatim”. Just in February, a handful of publishers took back a lawsuit against a photocopier shop in Delhi University that had been selling study packs with materials reproduced from the publishers’ books.

Abraham said that often there is an economic incentive for plagiarising – take that away, and you fix half the problem.

For bloggers, a major source of income is Google AdSense, a popular program that allows website publishers to display ads on their pages and “earn money when visitors view or click the ads”. The problem is: if the advertiser cares only about page views and not the origin of the content, there is no incentive against plagiarism.

Credit: Vitamin-966515/Pixabay [CC0 Public Domain]
Credit: Vitamin-966515/Pixabay [CC0 Public Domain]

For checking online copyright infringement, Abraham says, the onus should be on multinationals like Google, which host a large number of blogs and web versions of media articles. “Google is constantly indexing the internet,” he said in a phone interview from Bengaluru, so Google knows when a write-up or a photo has been published before.

To be fair, according to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Google does entertain requests to remove online posts where a complainant can show copyright infringement. It’s a recourse that Mitra Dalal and some members of her Facebook group have found useful. But Abraham says this is less effective than if Google created hurdles to publishing content it deems plagiarised.

Need for reforms

Where does all this leave Saxena? It’s hard to tell.

Social media has generated awareness about his case, and Saxena has filed a complaint with the Delhi Police under Section 63 of the Indian Copyright Act. He plans to follow it up with a legal case. One thing that has certainly resulted from the episode is the food writing community’s intensified demand for clarity in laws to protect intellectual property.

As Saee Koranne-Khandekar, who blogs at myjhola.in, wrote on Food Bloggers’ Hall of Shame: “What’s amazing is that the original work [by Saxena and Bhatnagar] has gone through three successful editions, is published by a major player, and is written by two prominent names in the industry. One would think theft of content would occur in the case of less lesser known works, but this is pure guts! I hope at least this incident marks the immediate need for reform in our laws.”

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.