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In 1892, after reading a fairytale about devilish wintry sprite Jack Frost, an 11-year-old girl wrote a short story called “The Frost King.” Upon its publication in the Perkins School for the Blind’s literary magazine, the story was reported to the school’s head. Not long after, the young girl—who happened to be future author and activist Helen Keller—was accused of lifting her story straight from Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” Luckily, tween Keller was eventually acquitted of the charges.
We are taught from an early age that plagiarism is practically a capital offense, punishable by a zero on an assignment, expulsion from school, and so forth. Today’s world of copyright infringement and copy-paste mentality drills it into our heads that copying is wrong. Instead, postmodern culture praises the values of authenticity and originality. Innovation and creation require us to be authentic, to be fresh, to come up with ideas no one else has yet considered. These are the new principles that society values and encourages. If copying another person is not outright illegal, it is at the very least disappointing.
Ten years after the Frost King incident, author Mark Twain expressed his frustration about how it was handled in a letter to Keller: “The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterance—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources…”
Ideas, much like the ocean’s fish supply back at the height of the fishing industry, appear to be limitless. They are abstractions of the mind, neural firings of an inconceivably complex brain. Approximating the number of potential ideas feels comparable to approximating the number of stars in the universe: impossible. Our gut reaction is to push back against Twain’s suggestion that the pool of ideas might be finite. It’s alarming to consider that Twain could be right, that we are in fact doomed to echo our predecessors without any new words to offer. If so compelled, one could even take it a step further into the realm of existentialism: How can we justify our individual existence if we are only mimicking lives that have passed by before us
Ralph Waldo Emerson, after reaching a similar conclusion to Twain’s, took comfort in the fact that originality may have never really existed anyway, saying: “The originals are not original. There is imitation, model, and suggestion, to the very archangels, if we knew their history.”
What is not innate must be learned, and humans learn best through imitation. It’s a smart way of doing things: Leonardo touched a stove and burned his hand? Don’t do as Leonardo does. Leonardo created a mind-blowing painting that has been studied and lauded by art experts around the world for centuries? Do as Leonardo does. In its most innocent form, copying is a compliment. Imitation stems from inspiration—we copy what we like. As such, imitation has worked its way into every facet of our lives, whether it be the visual arts, films, novels, poetry, music, fashion trends, consumer products or even our conversations with other people: Studies show that we tend to imitate the person who we are speaking with in order to make the interaction more comfortable. When we are born, our brains are stuffed with mirror neurons in order to make living life a little easier. Do as others do. Don’t touch the stove. Paint the Mona Lisa.
And the appropriation marches on. A surprising number (or perhaps not?) of the last century’s brightest and freshest minds have been found guilty at some point or another. T.S. Eliot, renowned poet and Nobel Prize winner, was accused of creating a potpourri of other people’s texts and rebranding it as the famous poem “The Waste Land.” In June, rock legend Led Zeppelin was declared not guilty after allegedly stealing the opening of hit “Stairway to Heaven” from an instrumental song by singer Randy Wolfe. And this past July, even the scintillatingly original Melania Trump fell into the hole of plagiarism when her convention speech bore striking resemblances to Michelle Obama’s 2008 version. Not to mention the possible sharing of ideas within the Gospels, with Mark borrowing from Matthew, or Luke borrowing from Mark. The question then becomes—would we be better off in a plagiarism-free world if it meant the loss of these iconic pieces? In the majority of these cases, probably not.
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