The source of new ideas is under question. We may not be as independent as we think we are.
When every topic that’s ever been written has already been covered in a million different ways, is it possible to ever have a truly original idea?
Take Bridgerton, Netflix’s ‘biggest series ever,’ with 82 million households devouring the show in its first 28 days. Is Lady Whistledown, the series’ sharp-tongued narrator, not essentially a Nineteenth-Century Gossip Girl, her pamphlets resembling the iconic ‘blasts’ of the 2007-2012 hit show? Is Simon and Daphne’s instant hatred and attraction towards the other’s perceived arrogance not derivative of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? Is the all-too-familiar let’s agree to pretend to be together for some mutually-beneficial deal but actually fall in love at the end not the plot of many a noughties chick flick?
This isn’t to say Bridgeton outright copied these ideas. But even when an idea hasn’t been directly inspired by or adapted from a certain source, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been done before.
In 1892, Helen Keller was accused of plagiarising Margaret Canby’s ‘Frost Fairies’ in her short story ‘The Frost King’, published in The Mentor magazine. Finding this deeply upsetting, Keller writes in her diary in the same year ‘I am sure I never heard it … I am perfectly sure I wrote the story myself.’
Just over a decade later, revisiting this event in a 1903 letter to Keller, Mark Twain describes the concept of plagiarism as ‘owlishly idiotic and grotesque’ and that ‘substantially all ideas are second hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.’
He goes on to say ideas themselves fundamentally can’t be original. Ideas are built on millions of ideas from millions of different people, and so any new idea or invention is the triumph of not only the individual, but all who came before them. A collective effort.
But can we actually plagiarise ideas that we can’t remember ever hearing?
Have you ever posted a hilarious tweet thinking it was completely original, only to discover a few hours later you’d somehow copied someone else’s word for word? Have you ever heard your own idea repeated back at you weeks, or months later, by someone claiming it to be their own?
This is often down to a phenomenon called unconscious plagiarism, or ‘Cryptomnesia’, and it’s far more common than you’d think.
Take, for instance, Ed Sheeran’s 16-million-pound lawsuit over his song ‘Photograph’, released in 2014 on his album, ‘X’ (Multiply). This being strikingly similar to Matt Cardle’s 2011 song ‘Amazing’, Sheeran fell under intense scrutiny for appearing to plagiarise this song ‘note for note.’ The Guardian reports Dr Joe Bennett as observing this was ‘most likely an example of cryptomnesia.’
But what exactly is cryptomnesia?
The American Psychological Association describes it as an event where ‘people mistakenly believe that a current thought or idea is a product of their own creation when, in fact, they have encountered it previously and then forgotten it’. In Ed Sheeran’s case, he settled the bill, whether it was genuinely cryptomnesia, or not.
Unfortunately, the more media with which we engage, the more susceptible we are to this phenomenon. Through various social media channels and ease of access to the Internet, we’re constantly being bombarded with ideas and information from a multitude of different sources not even daily, but hourly.
And it’s theorised that this phenomenon is partially caused by a failure to register the source of a particular piece of information. It’s easier to remember an idea itself, especially a good one, than it is to remember where it came from. It’s all too easy to recognise a striking idea as entirely our own invention, and not an act of remembering something we’ve heard before elsewhere.
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By Megan Rees: Literature COLUMNIST
But this brings up the question: how many of our own ideas are actually just acts of remembering things we have forgotten the sources for? How can we know if our ideas are actually our own, or if we are just remembering someone else’s?
‘CREATIVITY IS JUST CONNECTING THINGS’
And can we actually avoid ‘plagiarising’ ideas during a time where all the information in the world is readily available at our fingertips?
Some creators would argue that ‘stealing’ ideas is the foundation of creativity.
Steve Jobs famously told Wired in 1996 ‘creativity is just connecting things’, and in the same year stated in an interview on PBS’ ‘Triumph of the Nerds’ that Apple’s Macintosh was built on ideas from previous computers and companies. He said: ‘Picasso had a saying. He said ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’. And we have, you know, always been shameless about stealing great ideas.’
In a 2014 interview with CNET, Paul Schiller, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing at that time, defended this statement. He claimed it had been misunderstood, and that ‘I think what he meant by ‘steal’ was you learn, as artists have, from past masters’, that great ideas came from developing what had already been done by others and building on this.
Similarly, Kanye West tweeted in 2018 ‘too much emphasis is put on originality. Feel free to take ideas and update them at your will all great artists take and update.’
Is there a lesson to be learned from this? Is creativity actually more like building blocks than a blank canvas?
If some of the most successful creators of our time openly admit to taking and building on others’ ideas, why is the elusive idea of originality so highly sought after? Is the tireless aim for originality akin to clutching at thin air?
Salvador Dalí said ‘Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.’ But where’s the line between imitation, taking an idea and updating it (as Kanye West encourages), and outright copying?
SO, DOES ORIGINALITY EXIST?
Whether ideas are consciously or unconsciously plagiarised, whether they’re a case of cryptomnesia or outright intellectual theft, it appears original ideas are as rare as finding a picture of Dalí without his iconic moustache.
Perhaps creativity is closer to science than we realise. Scientific breakthroughs don’t happen in isolation; quite the opposite. They’re the result of years and years of building on research and ideas that came before.
Maybe creativity is the same. To create something truly ground-breaking, we must ‘connect things’, ‘take and update’, to build on years of artistic tradition to create something better.
But they key idea is to update, to add to. Copying word for word is not creativity.
As German author Helene Hegemann said: ‘there’s no such thing as originality, just authenticity.’
So, maybe there is no such thing as an original idea. But maybe that’s not a bad thing.
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