Copy Cats Are Universally Looked Down Upon by the World’s Children

Regardless of their nation’s stance on copyright and intellectual property laws, kids are not into others stealing their ideas

Photo: Albert Bridge

Intellectual theft is not cool, agree the world's children.

In a recent study from the University of Washington, resaerchers presented groups of 3-year-olds to 6-year-olds with videos featuring two puppets interacting. One puppet draws a lovely picture of a boat, while the other puppet wonders what to draw and looks on.

In some versions of the film, the second puppet draws the exact same boat photo. In two other versions, the second puppet draws a boat that features different shapes and colors than the original boat, or draws a completely different photo of a house. You can check out one of those videos here: 

Puppet plagiarism - example of unique drawing

The groups of children watching these videos came from three different cultural backgrounds: American, Mexican or Chinese (the videos were translated into their respective langauges). The authors chose those countries based on their very different takes on intellectual property and copyright laws.

But nationality, it turns out, probably has less to do with shaping a child's ideas about stealing others' ideas than that child's age. The 5- and 6-year-olds looked down on the copy cat puppet. The 3- and 4-year-olds, on the other hand, were a bit of a wild card. Here's the University of Washington with those results: 

3- and 4-year-olds evaluated plagiarism much differently than the older children, as well as differently across cultures. Mexican preschoolers rated unique drawers more positively than the plagiarizers, but, American and Chinese 3- and 4-year-olds didn’t distinguish much between characters who created original drawings and plagiarized ones. And Chinese preschoolers rated copycats more positively than those who drew something similar.

“Sometimes copying is good; for example, when we learn to write, we all learn this is how you make an A, so that’s not considered plagiarism,” [psychologist Kristina] Olson said. “That may be confusing to children, because sometimes we tell them to come up with novel ideas but other times they’re supposed to copy.”

By the time kids move on to kindergarten, something in their development makes them more or less universally agree that copy cats are bad, the researchers think. It's not until later in life that culture and individual background kick in and start influencing perceptions of what in kindergarten is a simple rule: No copying!

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