Originality of Ideas: Fact or Fiction?

By September 27, 2012Writing about Writing

The issues of originality and plagiarism are very tricky things. The concept of ideas being owned by one single person has caused debate after debate as to what the definition of plagiarism is and if it should even exist in the realm of academia. Lines can become so easily blurred when it comes to intellectual property, which can make it very hard for us, as writers, to navigate through writing a paper, or a story, or whatever, to the point where the question must be asked, “How are we supposed to know what belongs to us and what belongs to someone else?”

I feel like this question is often answered with, “Isn’t it obvious? Anything that originated with you, belongs to you, and anything that doesn’t, doesn’t.” The problem is that it isn’t that simple. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines plagiarism as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own… without crediting the source.” What I want to focus on within this definition is where it says the stealing of ideas is plagiarism. The problem that arises with including this in the definition is it demands that we focus on where ideas come from, how they form, and if there truly is such thing as an original idea.

The question “is any idea truly original?” is a valid one if you are considering whether or not you, as a writer, are inadvertently plagiarizing someone else’s work. Think about how you come up with an idea for a paper. The idea has to come from somewhere, whether you were given it in a prompt, heard someone else say it, read it in an article, or it was inspired by a different idea. So, is this the “stealing” the definition refers to? The idea came from somewhere or was built based off something else; and if all ideas come from somewhere outside you, then how can we possibly define an idea as “original.”

This concept is not only hard to define within academic circles but within creative ones as well. When I write a story, I get the inspiration or the idea for it from somewhere. I could be watching a movie or television, reading the newspaper or another book, talking to friends or just people watching. Something I see, hear, or read will suddenly strike me and make me think, and I’ll think about the idea of what I heard or saw or read and try to figure out a way I can use it and build an entire world and a plot around it.

The world is what inspires me, it’s where my ideas come from, so does that make them less original? Do none of my stories actually belong to me? Most of my papers are inspired by class discussion or research; are those any less mine because the idea did not just miraculously come to me? I don’t think so. I still formulated the arguments and plots on my own. I still used my own words. Those works are mine and mine alone. If you ask me, there is no such thing as a truly original idea anymore. All we have left is taking old ideas and presenting them in a new light or from a new perspective. And if this is true, it forces us to look at both plagiarism and originality in a new light, and define them in new ways, because if we don’t do that there is no way to move forward.