You should do something for your country instead of always asking for what your country can do for you.
Roman statesman and orator
Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
John F. Kennedy
35th President of the United States
Originality requires influence. Originality is also the art of hiding your sources. That’s why I’m not going to say who came up with either of the first two sentences. But my issue with influence and plagiarism is just that: not revealing your sources.
It’s quite simple, really. For example, “The use of language begins with imitation. The infant imitates the sounds made by its parents; the child imitates first the spoken language, then the stuff of books. The imitative life continues long after the writer is secure in the language, for it is almost impossible to avoid imitating what one admires.” E.B. White wrote these brilliant sentences in The Elements of Style, a book which, ironically, E.B. White did not write, but \ extended in many editions. The original writer of this book was White’s English professor at Cornell University, William Strunk Jr.
I began writing for fun in the third grade. My first book was about covert espionage–secret agent Timothy “Ty” Stevens traveled the world to fight terrorism. The story later turned into a trilogy, and that would not have been possible if I had not played the video game Syphon Filter for the Sony PlayStation. In fact, the third book was a total ripoff of the second game of the series (I was lazy and in a rush to finish). As I got older, I ventured into writing other stories not necessarily based on my favorite books, movies, or television shows, but they did influence my stories: Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia all had a hand in my earlier works, and they still do today.
Humans can’t avoid influence; we are social creatures. We love to work in groups and speak with others in a fit of excitement or boredom, depending on the topic and who’s talking. It should be no surprise that great artists like T.S. Eliot and William Shakespeare “borrowed” the works of others.
Why do they deserve recognition in schools around the world? Probably because they worked in the spirit of copyright’s original purpose. It gives “authors the right to their original expression, but encourages others to build freely upon the ideas and information conveyed by a work.” Jonathan Lethem said that last sentence, by the way. Sure, Shakespeare lifted material from previous plays and history. We praise him for transforming these ideas into something fresh. We praise him for his masterful expression of universal human experience: laughter, sadness, hatred, love, doubt, loneliness, death, life. Somehow, we are able to better understand our world because of an artist’s work. He did something better than his predecessors.
However, artists lose respect and credibility if they do not openly admit where their work came from. There’s no need to hide the source–the modern world will eventually find out. With the Internet at our disposal, with the world shrinking into a small village, and with the collective knowledge of humanity, we will discover who you copied.
But we’ll still love your work.