Everything’s Unoriginal

Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal. –T.S. Eliot

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Back in the day, I didn’t worry about getting accused of “plagiarism” because my paraphrase of some source (which I’d cited) was insufficiently original. Just how “original” do we expect undergrads to be, anyhow? And more importantly, isn’t the real test of originality whether the writer has synthesized pre-existing works in a new way (or at least tried to)? Or, to put it another way, shouldn’t we also be looking at the big picture—what is the writer trying to do here—not simply dissecting the individual bits and pieces?

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Do we really believe that a novelist who paraphrased 50 words from a technical source is a plagiarist? Because I think we may have lost sight of what a novel is if that’s the case.

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Read this: The Ecstasy of Influence: A plagiarism by Jonathan Lethem (via Maud Newton).

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While I was writing this post, I saw this on the university’s plagiarism page:

In academic culture new ideas ‘belong’ to their creator. Proper and complete citations assist individual creators to retain ownership rights to their work. When sources are not properly acknowledged, a creator’s right of ownership is threatened.

Let me first say that I believe what the university is really trying to say is that creators own expressions of ideas (ideas set down in a fixed form, i.e. writing), as indicated by the references to citations and sources. However, immediately after they assert that ideas “belong” to their creators, they use the phrase “ownership rights.” Therefore, the implication of this paragraph is that “ideas can be owned.” Which they can’t.

At least, not yet.

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It has long been acknowledged that when you put an idea out into the world, it is no longer solely yours:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. —Thomas Jefferson