In 1955, Johnny Cash wrote and recorded a song that would become a worldwide hit. Folsom Prison Blues. In 1887 Van Gogh admitted himself to a mental asylum in Southern France and spent his time painting 30 beautiful pieces of art that are almost priceless today.
In 1603 Shakespeare wrote Othello. One of his many masterpieces. These masters of the arts created one of a kind originals using nothing, but the contents of their own brains. As though their works were like gifts from the heavens.
The only problem is that this is utter crap. All the aforementioned creations were stolen. And I’ll tell you how and why.
So, you’re a Johnny Cash fan, aren’t We all? Well, he stole Folsom Prison Blues almost word-for-word from a song released two years earlier by another American composer, Gordon Jenkins.
His song was called Crescent City Blues. And if you listen to it in another tab of course. Then you’ll notice that the melody and more than half the words are identical to Folsom Prison Blues. Cash tried to get away with his forgery too.
He didn’t credit Jenkins anywhere on his record, which sold many thousands more copies than the original. They later sued Cash after his version became a worldwide hit. The lawsuit cost him $75,000.
Van Gogh’s 30 masterpieces were all precise replicas of 30 artworks by other artists.. Although I am being slightly unfair on the mad Dutchman. He admitted that these were all copies at the time.
In fact, that was his intention to copy as closely as possible works that he admired. Though it’s still interesting to learn that even a master such as Van Gogh needed to copy now and then for inspiration.
And Shakespeare. Well, he stole a lot of his work. Othello was a story borrowed from a previous Italian novelist, Giovanni Cinthio. Hamlet was stolen from 12th-century Danish writer, Saxo Grammaticus.
And Romeo and Juliet? Yes, that was stolen too. From a poem written by Arthur Brooke in 1562. The poem was even called: “The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet”. But am I angry that these legends of the arts, the titans of creativity, have been lying to us? Hell No, stealing other people’s work was the best thing they ever did.
These people may have nicked their treasures, but who cares when they did such wonderful things with the booty. Crescent City Blues sounds great, but Folsom Prison Blues sold better because let’s be honest, it’s a hell of a lot catchier and has a higher production value than the original song.
Shakespeare, arguably did greater things with the material he copied than anyone else in history. He transformed the stories he stole into truly beautiful creations that elevated the English language to a godly level. Permanently enriching the tapestry of mankind in the process.
The fact that Shakespeare stole these stories doesn’t disparage his work in the slightest. He was still a literary genius and potentially no one else could have given these existing tales, such a breath of brilliant new life.
If he had copied the stories word for word, that’s a whole different ball game and that’s not ok. But truthfully, copyright theft, doesn’t matter. It’s what you do with it that counts.
These three examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to famous works that are actually copies. In fact, I would argue that most of all creative works you know today, books, music, film etc. are copied from someone who came earlier.
If this is true, then it begs the question: Is any idea truly original? Well, no, there was a point in history when truly original ideas were still possible. But such a rare phenomenon has not existed for at least 2,000 years. Probably not since humans began building large connected civilisations.
Your brain is a collection of millions of memories collected over your entire life. Whenever you have an idea, you aren’t always aware, but you subconsciously borrow little bits of these memories and combine them to imagine something new.
You could derive this new idea from bits of hundreds of different memories or just three. But you can’t avoid it. This is how the human brain works. The inception of a 100% unique idea is not possible because the brain always has to draw on prior knowledge.
To frustrate matters even further. In most creative fields, there are actually a very limited amount of possibilities that can be realised. Which makes repeats, or at least very close duplicates inevitable.
Take, for example, a novel. You would think there are limitless possibilities for writing fiction, but not quite. At least that’s not what Christopher Booker thought. He postulated that there are only seven possible plots and all works of fiction ever written fall into one of them.
- Overcoming the Monster.
- Beowulf, War of the Worlds, James Bond.
- Rags to Riches
- Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations.
- The quest
- The Lord of The Rings, The Pilgrim’s Progress.
- Voyage and return
- Alice in Wonderland, Peter Rabbit, Gone With The Wind.
- Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night.
- Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet.
- A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast.
You can go round and round in your mind all day, conjuring up wild storylines that may not fit into one of these seven. And if you do you’ll probably end up at some truly stupid destinations. Such as the tale of a man who grows a third nipple and has to take up underwater basket weaving to make enough money to have it removed.
But then you realise that’s just an bizarre example of “The Quest” or possibly “Overcoming the monster”. Depending on how you look at it. And even within these categories, you often find that so many acclaimed stories are the same.
Within the human experience. There are only finite things that a character in a book can do. Because of this, now and then a very odd phenomenon occurs. Films are released by completely unrelated and independent studios that have identical plots and neither was aware of the other film’s existence until their release.
This is so eerily common that it has been given a name, “Twin Films”. For example, In 1986, Top Gun was released and so was a remarkably similar but spectacularly less successful film called “Iron Eagle”.
In 1998 there was “Antz and A Bug’s Life”. In 1999, “The Mummy” and “Tale of the Mummy”. 2006, “The Illusionist” and “The Prestige”. These are just a few examples of many. Some twin films have been attributed to espionage within the film industry, but many others are pure coincidences.
After all, over 2,500 films are released each year. But it could also be because there are only a limited amount of possible storylines that can be altered, sure. But the core story remains the same.
Even when you are absolutely certain that your new idea is entirely original, you may actually be suffering from a case of cryptomnesia. This is when you recall a memory you had forgotten and you mistakenly think it’s an original idea that you have just generated.
But in reality the joke or concept for a book, film etc. is something you heard or saw a long time ago and had just buried Deep in the recesses of your mind. Cryptomnesia can get you in trouble.
If you are adamant that your idea is original, but it turns out to be plagiarised. Cryptomnesia has come for many well-known people.
When the American writer Helen Keller was 11. She wrote a short story called “The Frost King”. But later in her life, it was discovered that the entire story was plagiarised from a fairytale called “Frost Fairies”. Helen Keller had no idea she was committing plagiarism. At the time she was suffering from cryptomnesia. But she later recalled that she had in fact read Frost Faries four years before she wrote The Frost King.
She got into trouble and her name was dragged through the mud by the papers. The event left Keller a nervous wreck and she would never write fiction again.
So if having an original idea is almost impossible, and if you do, then it’s probably just cryptomnesia anyway, then it begs the question: should we all be committing plagiarism and just hoping to get away with it? or should we go the other way and all put paper Bags over our heads and sit in the corner, shaking because we’re afraid that if we utter a single word, we could be breaking the law.
Well, there is actually a happy medium. And it’s what 99% of us do when we want to create a great piece of honest, creative work. Plagiarism is obviously morally wrong. Plagiarism is taking someone else’s work or concept and passing it off as your own, with little to no changes to its content.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with using one or more pieces of other people’s work as heavy inspiration. So long as you add value. When true originality, isn’t possible, and it seldom is, then greatness can only be achieved by adding value.
Few of Shakespeare’s works are genuinely original, but he achieved greatness time after time. By taking already successful stories and rewriting them using astonishing language to elevate them to a new level that the original writer could never reach.
Imagine if Shakespeare had to come up with a truly original storyline each time he wrote a play. He would have far less time To focus on carefully crafting beautiful lines and probably wouldn’t have written nearly as many plays for future generations to enjoy.
Using other people’s work allows one to not get caught in a hopeless black hole of imagination, trying to fathom some immaculate conception of an original idea. That will likely never come. By bypassing this step and building upon the work of others. You can get a head start and focus on adding significant value to truly make it into a unique piece that may actually improve upon the original.
Forget about whether what you are working on has been done a hundred times before and focus on. What you personally can add to it that nobody else has. Do this authentically and with passion, and you will create something amazing. In doing so, you will not be alone. The best musicians of the past century have taken inspiration from the great classical composers that laid the groundwork for them.
And what is Star Wars, if not an amalgamation of spaghetti, westerns, samurai films and footage of Spitfire dogfights during World War II all set in space. Instead of being intimidated by all the great work that has come before you, let it instead inspire you and there is no limit to what you could achieve.