My Experiments With Plagiarism


My Experiments With Plagiarism

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza/ Arré

Every time I begin writing a new script or a new post, an internal struggle takes place in my head. This is how it usually unfolds:

“I’m not being original.”
“Someone else has already written about this.”
“There are a million articles like this – why would anyone read mine?”

Usually the struggle wins and instead of taking action, I wait. I go back to consuming rather than producing. I realise now how completely futile and self-destructive this kind of mindset is. This is not how creators think. As Salvador Dali said: “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”

Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, travelling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator – marked by her forever – remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, 40 years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory?

The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: Did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?

The truth is, originality is a myth.

Very little in this world can be considered wholly and unequivocally original. The phrase “there is nothing new under the sun” captures the essence of this. Every film, every book, every speech, every painting, every innovation, is built upon the prior work of thousands of others. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men – but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his.

It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing – and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite – that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that 99 parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Take a look at this list of people who have stolen, copied and imitated: Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Michael Jackson, Mark Zuckerberg, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, William Shakespeare… In fact here’s Steve Jobs quoting Picasso that “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

Were it not for stealing, progress as we know it would grind to a halt in every last domain: Poetry, science, writing, art, music, sports. It is simply not possible to create something out of nothing. Every innovation builds upon the past, standing on the shoulders of giants.

The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism.

In a courtroom scene from The Simpsons that has since entered into the television canon, an argument over the ownership of the animated characters Itchy and Scratchy rapidly escalates into an existential debate on the very nature of cartoons. “Animation is built on plagiarism!” declares the show’s hot-tempered cartoon-producer-within-a-cartoon, Roger Meyers Jr. “You take away our right to steal ideas, where are they going to come from?”

Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.

Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results.

What then, of copyright? Plagiarism and piracy, after all, are the monsters we working artists are taught to dread, as they roam the woods surrounding our tiny preserves of regard and remuneration.

Few of us today question the contemporary construction of copyright. It is taken as a law, both in the sense of a universally recognisable moral absolute, like the law against murder, and as naturally inherent in our world, like the law of gravity. In fact, it is neither. Rather, copyright is an ongoing social negotiation, tenuously forged, endlessly revised, and imperfect in its every incarnation.

American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, for one, considered copyright a necessary evil: He favoured providing just enough incentive to create, nothing more, and thereafter allowing ideas to flow freely, as nature intended. His conception of copyright was enshrined in the American Constitution, which gives US Congress the authority to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This was a balancing act between creators and society as a whole; second comers might do a much better job than the originator with the original idea.

But Jefferson’s vision has not fared well; it has in fact been steadily eroded by those who view the culture as a market in which everything of value should be owned by someone or other. With no registration requirement, every creative act in a tangible medium is now subject to copyright protection: your email to your child or your child’s finger painting, both are automatically protected.

In the contemporary world, though, the act of “copying” is in no meaningful sense equivalent to an infringement – we make a copy every time we accept an emailed text, or send or forward one – and is impossible anymore to regulate or even describe.

Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let’s try calling it that – not a right but a monopoly on use – and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest, no matter if it is Andrew Carnegie controlling the price of steel or Walt Disney managing the fate of his mouse.

Maybe now’s a good time to confess that I have deliberately plagiarised almost every word you have read here. How else do you make a point about the futility of originality?

Plagiarised with great pleasure from: The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem; Screw Originality, Just Do It by Gary Wu on The rest of my points have been borrowed from this lovely BrainPickings essay.