Copying….vulgar or necessary…..

Curious Rascal
4 min readDec 23, 2022

So this is odd for me. A follow on post! Last time I discussed originality and very unscientifically concluded we still have much to discover and create. Long live originality. However here’s the dilemma. Most of us like to think we can be original and in fact have been in many moments of our lives. That we add to the smelting pot of ideas and swirling thoughts in the ether, somehow shaping or surprising those around us. I do love the romance of the suggestion, but it seems a stretch to suppose ingenuity is a regular dimension of our day to day. Why? Our world would be imbalanced if we were continuously producing new disjointed jumps to the next innovation and my sense is we would be masters of this planet and ourselves if our pace of development cantered so. We are not.

It started me ruminating on an adjunct to originality we overlook. Actions of human nature which are quite powerful; moving us forward incrementally yet we dismiss because somehow they appear vulgar and seem to serve no purpose.

What I’m talking about is copying and its darker cousin plagiarism.

‘All ideas are copies of impressions, that is to say, that thoughts are the product of previous experiences’. David Hume

We baulk at the idea of copying because at its most base, it entails taking someone elses idea and passing it off as your own. In effect stealing. When put so starkly it does sound disgusting. However the problem with this description is in our everyday, we are absorption, churn and spewing machines. Most of us are oblivious we are such assimilators especially when we surmise we have some knowledge or experience of the discussion or activity in hand. Subconsciously or not, we meld, append, fracture or dissolve what we overhear and learn about into other thoughts and theories our mind has accumulated until it can be difficult to determine who thought what and where an idea was borne.

This isn’t a feature bound to one sphere of the world. I’m sure as you consider this tendency of ours, you’ll accept you are so accused. Think back to those conversations on politics, perhaps you have tried your hand at writing or composing a piece of music or when you have flexed a recipe to your tastes. You’ve mopped up sources and made them personal in determining your stance or facilitating creativity.

It seems slightly depressing as we don’t consider this form of flourish very novel, placing it in low esteem as we rank ‘original’ thoughts and ideas higher in the hierarchy of respect. Though some would say imitation is the sincerest and highest form of flattery. Maybe you wouldn’t be so arrogant to consider you have been original, but would you ever admit you have copied or plagiarised another’s sweat and tears to come up with your own voice? Yet I would contend we do so everyday.

We celebrate innovation and creativity. But research seems to indicate often what we perceive as original and attribute to a single individual can be the product of many years, decades, centuries of work — collaborative, built upon or challenged by the efforts or the thoughts of the many. Acknowledging Eureka moments are truly group efforts could be the clearest demonstration of humankind striving together for the common good (except when these moments are borne of accident…of which there are many). There seems something highly credible and positive to take inspiration from others; to shape it via the lens of our personality and experience for the benefit of others. Beauty of a sort is suggested in that notion. Copying is necessary to advance.

Amusingly Mark Twain thought there was no such thing as plagiarism because there was no such thing as original thought or ideas.

Perhaps what disturbs us about copying or plagiarism is not only the concept of stealing but innately an idea of exploitation; commandeering that which is not ours without any hat tipping or humility to our sources. But we are contradictory. Although different types of copying exist, we seem to be more accepting of it in certain circumstances, almost encouraging. Copying can be mechanical, almost rote — the use of theorems; recipes. And then there is copying where we learn in order to apply it elsewhere or bolster our knowledge to produce a variation — the use of case studies; role models; practice answers for exams papers; ‘not re-inventing the wheel’. Research shows that all species copy and although in the animal kingdom we may not be the best innovators a reason for our success is we are able to persistently and effectively imitate. Copying is evolutionary.

I’m being facetious. Clearly the debate framed like this is controversial. We all understand if there was no comeuppance for copying and plagiarism, what would be the return to being original or creative. Economically it would not make sense and thus we enter a different rabbit hole. I’m not encouraging you to go forth and copy without regard to others, but we also need to accept it is what we do; it is who we are and it might even be necessary. But perhaps we can be honest about our sources and give credit when we can. Because paying homage to originality and the never seen or thought before seems important if we want to keep moving forward….

‘Nothing you create is ultimately your own, yet all of it is you. Your imagination, it seems to me, is mostly an accidental dance between collected memory and influence, and is not intrinsic to you, rather it is a construction that awaits spiritual ignition’. Nick Cave.

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Curious Rascal

I'm keen to understand more of the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random because it helps me in life and improves my thinking.