The Reassuring Illusion of Originality

(Do you think I care if you copy this?)

When I read the refrain “Give credit where it’s due” being parroted by people who assume they originated what they produce, and that no one has ever done it before (so they should own it) it makes me crazy!  Then it makes me laugh.  Sometimes I think things were better for the arts during the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

In those days, great artists produced work that was paid for by private patrons or governmental institutions.  They did not sell to the public.  Artists could concentrate on producing a body of work over a period of time with less pressure on making sure each production was a “hit”.  By drawing a regular stipend under patronage, artists were more prolific and produced hundreds of works.  Since they were already paid for, the works could be enjoyed by everyone, without charging admission.

Now, under markets that are called free, artists of all kinds spend years trying to survive and still produce work.  Because they must trade their work for sustenance, they pander to prurience and limit originality to increase marketability.  Many give up and begin doing non-creative work.  The prospect of eating regularly and paying your bills is a strong incentive.  In the 17th and 18th Centuries, the arts were considered to be an essential profession, as valid as carpentry.  That isn’t true any more.  It’s viewed as a luxury, and our ability to experience life through the creative expression of culture is impoverished by the change.

There’s been an enormous shift in what is considered intellectual property.  In the Renaissance, nobody could assert ownership of an idea, only the specific expression of that idea, which was produced as work-for-hire.  The artists got paid for a work and credited with having produced it, but no ownership or control over the use of the work once it was paid for.  Now people try to codify ownership of the expression, the concepts, and any terms associated with the ideas, demanding credit, fees and control over usage in perpetuity.  Are we really better off the way things are today, with any work that becomes sufficiently successful being fought over in court?

One thing I did not point out explicitly in my last post, the one about how a popular song can get altered, adapted and passed on in new forms for many centuries, was that this happens with nearly everything that is created by humans.  Laws, religions, literature, architecture, science and technology are all built directly upon work originally produced in the very distant past.  But modern people are greedy and small-minded when it comes to their own view of originality, and we can’t escape acting like any other mammal.  We keep our place in a hierarchy.  We will admit we adapted the plot of our play from an idea by Shakespeare, because he’s the “big dog”, and not mention the fact that Shakespeare borrowed all his plots from earlier works.

This makes the very idea of “credit where credit is due” a bit absurd.  Most people have NO FREAKING IDEA where credit is REALLY due!  We only know the last person to have restated the theme, re-inked the picture or renewed the copyright before we got hold of it.  It’s polite to give them credit, but it’s also pretentious as all get out.  If you believe anything you are writing, designing, photographing, saying or even thinking hasn’t been done before in some version, it’s likely to be an indication of your own ignorance.

Does original thought and original work exist?  I believe it does.  However it happens more rarely than people are generally aware of.  For most, the originality culminates at your own birth.  There’s no one else quite like you.  Even if you do have your Mom’s hair, your Dad’s eyes and that funny way of smiling Uncle Harry used to have.


Filed under photos, Thinking about thinking

45 responses to “The Reassuring Illusion of Originality

  1. Gemma Sidney

    Thanks Mikey, this is such an interesting post…

    It always makes me laugh when people say they’re “alternative” when all that means is that they want to be like all the other “alternative” people. By seeking to fit in we often become bland copies of other bland copies… and so on.

    I think it’s a great compliment when someone credits us to have been an inspiration or a help to them. I think that doing as much reading as we can from as many different sources as possible can lead to new and perhaps original ideas.

    I like to think that original thought does exist. Only we have lived what we’ve lived, where we’ve lived it, at that particular moment… We each have unique experiences and interesting opinions. We just have to learn to be more giving and open so that we can all share the knowledge!

    • I completely agree with you about the need to be generous and open, as I know you try to be, Gemma. I used to think only I experienced what I feel, the way I feel it. Then I started reading a sufficient number of other people’s experiences and recognizing that sometimes they were explaining my own! The fact that I assume that I alone experience my life uniquely, because I’m the one in this shell at the moment, might just be another reassuring illusion. So many millions have loved, laughed, lost, struggled and overcome obstacles before. Can there really be that much variation?

      • Gemma Sidney

        It’s true that there are an awful lot of us humans on the planet… but still, I remain hopeful that we can have original thoughts, if we put our minds to it!

  2. Hey, Mikey,

    As someone whose entire professional life has been all about “creating,” “owning,” and “marketing” my words, all I can say is, “Hmmm.”

    In other words, I agree with you. But since patrons don’t exist, I’ll probably have to keep pandering for awhile.

    Which brings up another angle: I can’t tell you how many artists of all types I know who’ve been doing work dependent on gatekeeper approval (one step removed from the public; they’re the publishers/networks/et al who get you to the public) who have to pander on because they’ve literally forgotten the work they really wanted to do.

    Maybe I’ll go write a short story for Kindle. What was that one I wanted to tell back in ’79…?

    • I probably should have said how lucky I am to be relatively free from market forces influencing what I must write. My constraints are just time, energy and clarity. I know you are bursting with great stories untold, Larry. I expect you know how to balance the sales requirement with your own need for integrity.

      I sure ought to know about those artists who forget what they wanted to write about after decades of being gated, since I married one.

  3. Mikey,
    Even as a unique individual, I am shaped by everything I have experienced, seen and heard from the moment I was born.
    Becuase I adore detail, I notice detail… (probably in an unconscious fashion most of the time) and when I draw or paint I am sure that I am influenced by information that I don’t even realise has seeped into my brain and been stored there.
    So yes, your point that there is ” nothing new under the sun” and that it’s pretentious to think so would therefore be correct.
    On the other hand, I DO see times when someone shows us an old idea in a totally new light, they have the creativity and vision to stand the old ways on their head and to realign our vision… what we see IS new, it’s just something new make up with the materials of something old.
    So in that sense I’d disagree and say that “there ARE new things under the sun”.
    I don’t think that these two ideas and ideals are incompatible bedfellows either, I think they can live happily together albeit in fascinating strange and complex relationship.
    Sure, there will be writers and artists who are school teachers to pay the bills and who are true artists in their spare time, and yes, some decide to produce “what sells” because it allows them a more comfortable existence and you still have to “fit in”.
    Pope Julius II was Michelangelo’s patron when he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel, I’m assuming that the Pope would have required the painter to be Catholic (ie. there were requirements for the artist to meet)
    I studied Art History, and learned that Michelangelo was forced into this commission very much against his will.
    I remember that there was a poem somewhere that expresses his true thoughts on the project and his frustration of the dictatorial Pope, so “patronage” for Michelangelo was a mixed blessing, four years on his back doing a work he detested since he was a sculptor at heart.
    So patronage is a double edged sword… the artist, both then and now has found that being put into an uncomfortable position (on many levels) is indeed nothing new.
    Credit for an idea that born of other parts is I believe, still valid, the work had to get it’s DNA from somewhere after all.

    • Quite true. Creatives should attribute sources. Should being the operative word. They aren’t required to by law. And people are making new work out of old work, just as you say, even though it’s usually reinterpretation as opposed to creation. My argument is with people who don’t bother to learn about art history, and only credit the gallery or museum where the painting hangs. I was also responding in part to an FP post by wabi wabi, where commenters were falling over themselves butt-kissing about web credit rules with no real knowledge of the difference between a moral and a legal obligation. They were calling any violation of “nettiquette” theft. Theft is a crime. You have to prove damages and malicious intent.

      This is a free forum, not commercial space. If I post a picture of my own here, anyone else is free to copy or alter it all they want for non-commercial purposes, so long as they label it with an extremely basic credit such as “”. If they are altering my images for review or for satire, or for any unpaid academic purpose they aren’t even required to do that, and under the first amendment to the Constitution of this nation, I can not demand that they take them down. Hyperlinks may be considered polite, but that’s not a legal requirement. I don’t get to constrain others from digital copying just because I say you can’t without my permission. That is merely the illusion of control.

  4. hmmmmm…where to start. While I do agree that most everything is a version of some prior something, I would say this still makes it unique and original. Even if someone takes a story line, an idea, or a photograph and in some way alters it or embellishes it, this makes it a unique original. No, the concepts are not unique and, yes, a truly unique, never been seen before, original anything is few and far between these days. Most everything has been done.

    You know I have to throw in the brain angle. Because our brains are unique even down to the cell level and each person’s interpretation of the very same thing is different because it is colored with their subjective experiences, thoughts and preferences, everything really is unique even if it is the same. There’s a thought! However, I know that is not what you are talking about here.

    • I think I shall try and re-orient myself toward having more hope of discovering my own channel to originality. I’m finding my own work to be very derivative, and it’s been a bit frustrating. The events of my life are pretty individual, but I seem to only be able to write in the styles of many others I’ve read – so far. It’s not really saying it like it is in my head. I’ll have to try harder. Thank you for your positivity, Debbie. That’s useful.

  5. “The guy who did it before you…only Awesomer!”

    If you ever want to be a life-coach, let me know. I can’t offer much in the way of salary, but there are perks. Like all the motivational haikus you can read!

  6. So there really is nothing new under the sun?! Including that phrase. People ask me sometimes if I made up my 10 steps or if I got them from somewhere else. I’m quick to acknowledge that the steps are not original. For example, the concept of forgiveness has been around for quite awhile! Great post.

    • I’m so surprised this one got such involved and detailed responses. I was trying to write my way out of an unusual combination of depression and exhaustion. My wife had a virus for four days, and I hadn’t been able to sleep because of her cough. Because I was tired, things that wouldn’t ordinarily bother me were irritating. I couldn’t escape the main topic of small talk everywhere – the royal wedding – and I had nothing new to add to that discussion, so I felt lonely.

      Of course you are absolutely right that old methods and values last precisely because they are useful and have endured the test of time.
      I walk the labyrinth for the same reason you revisit the 10 steps. The circle doesn’t change. I do.

  7. I can see both sides to this debate. As Gemma says, “Only we have lived what we’ve lived, where we’ve lived it, at that particular moment… We each have unique experiences and interesting opinions.” Yet even if I look at my current “what I’m living”, while many aspects are unique to me, I know very well many others before me (sadly) have walked the same road. The puddles might have been in different spots, there may have been more or less potholes, the road may have been longer or shorter.

    It is the detail, I think, that makes something (a song, a tune, a painting, an experience) unique. We have probably all experienced grief as some stage, there is “nothing new under the sun” about grief: the facts of the situations remain constant: a loved one died. Yet each time the experience is unique, even for the same person.

    • I’m still not convinced our experiences and perceptions are unique, but yours and everyone else’s thoughtful comments have made me consider why we might wish to believe that we each are like no other. Perhaps I resist the notion of uniqueness because I want to feel that someone else could understand me, and if no one else experiences what I do then in a sense, no one ever could. There’s also the riddle of human history. Billions of unique expressions of consciousness, and yet the same mistakes are made over and over in circles. Technology advances, and new structures are made, but we ourselves seem (to me) to be unable to grow beyond our basic emotional and psychological range, the same one we’ve had for a hundred thousand years. Perhaps it is because there are unique, enlightened persons, but they are rare. So things would only change incrementally, because a Bodhisattva has lived. I’m still wrestling to understand it all. It’s too big a topic for my preferred 1000-word limit.

      • Ahhhhhhhhhhh – the question of LEARNING from our experiences, unique or otherwise, I see as an entirely different question.
        Speaking of perceptions, my psychologist and I had a completely off-topic discussion last night. We were discussing rabbits and are they aware of death. My psychologist has thoughts about how humans perception of time is different to the rest of the animal kingdom, while I have the view that maybe the rabbits just do not fear death, if they are aware of it (and we do not know they aren’t).

        I’ve now wandered off on another tangent, so back to the learning. Maybe we have no evolved enough yet to actually learn. We are stuck in still doing things the same way while hoping for a different outcome.

        • You do go off to absorbing trails, Robyn. I’ve heard rabbits squeal in fear when pursued by a predator, but I have no evidence if they connect the danger to the conclusion of their possible demise. My intuition, based on relationships with other mammals, is that their emotions are simpler and more primal than ours, less connected to intellectual constructs like time or cause-and-effect consequences. Rabbits don’t really need the complexifying cerebrummobile for their survival. That’s our adaptation.

  8. Your post reminds me of the lyrics to the Beatles “All you need is love”. If someone wants to copy my writing. Go ahead. It means it is worth stealing. Nobody ever has though to my knowledge. You can always write something else. I agree about creativity being stifled because producers/publishers just want to squeeze out a money maker. It’s a shame.

    • Maybe all we can do is try not to succumb completely to the dark side of commerce, hmm? This might interest you. I was trolling the forums out of boredom and ran across one blogger accusing another of “plagiarism, stealing her work, what’s WordPress gonna do, other blogger should be banned” and like that. When I followed her links, it turned out she had taken an old copy of a Women’s Day magazine, taken pictures of one article, and reposted the knitting pattern from that article. The second blogger had copied her post (written in English) and translated it into Italian, giving attribution to the first blogger but no hyperlink, and no credit to Women’s Day. Neither of these bloggers had any right to assert intellectual property rights, since the basis of their posts was an old magazine article still under copyright, but even after that was pointed out to her the first blogger continued to assert her work was somehow “original” and she should get satisfaction of some sort or other. The nerve!

      • Interesting. I’m not sure I get the pay off from the first blogger’s perspective. For myself, I try to question why I’m getting so upset and then look at all sides. That usually cools my jets and brings clarity to the situation. I think if she stepped back and looked at it more objectively she would be embarrassed by her behavior.

        • I saw the thread in the Support forum, but didn’t read it. Interesting indeed.

          I don’t think I’d even know if anyone borrowed anything from me – I must admit I tend to think that pretty unlikely – who would want to borrow a nightmare? I certainly wouldn’t be worried if I’d published a knitting pattern from an old Women’s Day!

        • I hate to put it bluntly, but my take on the first blogger was that she was projecting her own guilt about “borrowing” another’s content without permission (which she was unable to admit she had done) on to the actions of the second blogger. (I’m only a pop psychologist, though.)

  9. Mike,
    Fascinating topic. Surely there are new ideas like airplanes, for instance. Not the same form of creative expression you are referring to, but a new idea.

    Generally, though I agree with you – original thought is probably very rare if it exists at all. I so thoroughly enjoy ancient wisdom, I don’t fully understand why anyone wants to or thinks they can create new wisdom. But somehow a streak of anti-authority seems to be built into every generation and so we continue the cycle of wanting to think we are different and unique.

    • Sandra, I pondered over your comment for a while. I do think we have gained new wisdom, otherwise we’d still be burning witches in Salem, think the world was flat and not understand E=mc2.

    • @Sandra —
      Yes, you understood what I was getting at. We make new stuff, but we ourselves change too little for my comfort. I’ve begun to look at going through the door to the other side of life, and I don’t see us close enough to eradicating war, crime, poverty or pollution. I’m running out of time. I have to work to extend my patience. These things won’t be solved before I die.

      @Robyn —
      A large number of people in this country believe that the President is foreign-born and a secret Muslim, that climate change isn’t really happening, and that you can magically repay a multi-trillion dollar deficit by cutting spending only a few million. If there is an increase in wisdom, it is accompanied by a concurrent rise in willful ignorance.

      I believe that witches are hunted now more than ever, though the words for them have changed. We no longer burn the witches, but we have become obsessed with keeping them in cages. They are sometimes labeled “terrorists”, held without trial after being tortured, and their countries are bombed, with innocent dead accepted as “collateral damage”.

      The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world. We have less than 5% of the world’s population, and over 23% of all those in jails and prisons, not counting those under penal supervision at home or on parole. The only place with a higher percentage of incarcerated population at any time in recorded history was that of the former Soviet Union during the peak of the Gulag system prior to World War II. Our prison population quadrupled between 1980 and 2003. The main reason? The “war on drugs”. So addicts are also among the witches.

      (Please pardon my going off on a tangent. You can see why I get depressed sometimes. I’m still struggling to look at political subjects without losing it emotionally.)

      • Mikey – ever thought of relocating (I did very seriously consider it)? New Zealand is rather nice, right now I’m not up to recommending my own country, for obvious reasons! I do empathise with you, Mikey. You know I feel reasonably defeated about my country, just for different reasons. Humanists battle with understanding this whole “them and us” thing that much of the world seems to love.

        • I did consider relocating to Denmark, the Netherlands, Wales, Mexico or Canada for various reasons like having friends there, their political, cultural or health care superiority, and ecology tech. But I live with my wife (who has only lived in one state), we still manage the affairs of her 100 yr-old auntie, and my Mom is here in the NW boonies and needs some help too. Most of the time I’m more than satisfied to have just gone from big city to small town, nearer to most of my family. I do look forward to visiting down under once I retire.

  10. Really interesting… I enjoyed this article immensely especially considering how I use the line “give credit where it’s due” all the time. 🙂

    I do it because I want people to share my words and still remember where it originated from. My ideas and subject matter may not be original, but perhaps my approach is? And isn’t that what counts in our current discourse?

    I’m still young and naive and believe that if people like my work they should credit me with putting the time and effort in to create it. Monetary rewards will hopefully come later… Ahem…


    Originality is something that is hard to find in this era of ours. And when it crops up, it truly is a pleasure. But, yeah, everyone can paint a bowl of fruit – it is HOW we paint that bowl of fruit that gives an indication to our own, personal (dare I say original) insight into the world.

    I don’t believe there are many original thoughts or ideas anymore, only original expression… This very article that you’ve written is redundant and unoriginal(And I’m sure you know that). However, the manner in which you’ve expressed your thought IS original(to a certain extent)…
    And that is what truly matters.

    So then, I suppose people should give credit towards original expression of an idea/feeling/thought – regardless of whether or not that idea/feeling/thought is original in itself…

    It’s important for any artist that people know who they are, especially if you want to make a living out of it…

    I always believed that the whole point of a copyright is not about being pretentious with your work. It’s about protecting yourself from being ignored and taken advantage of, right… Okay…

    You’ve touched base on so many points in your article, I risk falling into a ramble… I like it – a truly good article gets the brain cogs clanking…

    Oh, I don’t know… I just like having a Copyright for my work(original or no)… It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling of credence as a writer… Awesome 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, Mikey…
    I really enjoyed it.

  11. I’m glad it energized your own thought process, Frederik, and I agree with you about the uniqueness of individual expression even though most idea content is recycled. I really didn’t know where to go with this one, so I just “went”. Yes, my style is quite derivative. In blog posts, unlike other things I’m writing, I try to touch a lot of bases in a fairly small amount of words. It is an intentional technique to invite the readers’ participation. When I read an article that’s too exhaustive (including my own), there’s little left to say in reaction. Much as I enjoy being “like-buttoned”, I am more interested in what people who are reading are thinking and feeling about the material. This is a workout space for me. I’m still learning.

    I do believe in giving credit where it is due, in the form of an attribution that identifies other creators or their sites, if I can determine that. Hyperlinks? Sometimes, sometimes not. Not every work has web sites attached. My problem is that people often mis-identify sources, and assume that if they write a mere opinion about another’s work, that gives them a claim of ownership over the source material. I often write critiques. As long as I do not commit lies with malicious intent, I can publish any opinion I like regarding the quality of a work. But I only own the opinion, not the original work. In this country, however, I don’t have to get permission of what to review or what position to take, and I can publish an identifying image or excerpt. Critiques are protected by our Constitution’s First Amendment, as part of the freedom of speech and of the press. There are limits to those freedoms such as the FCC rules for broadcast, but there’s very little you can’t say in print if the language is appropriate for all ages.

    I don’t quite know what to say about your point regarding being taken advantage of. I probably just assume that everyone WILL inevitably be taken advantage of at some point, from having worked in showbiz for a couple of decades. Everyone lives off everyone else’s life-force, like a labyrinth full of vampires. I don’t personally care if people adapt, borrow or even steal my written work. I can make more. So, help yourself! May these ideas spread like manure, to fertilize the thoughts of others far and wide 🙂
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  12. jgavinallan

    Hi Mikey:
    It may be true that in the 17th or 18th centuries, writing in particular was considered a true profession. However,now it is of even more importance. I don;t know what I would do if I couldn’t put down my setbacks in a phrase or paragraph or story.
    I don’t think people crave credit for their work. If they do, those individuals fall by the wayside. You, and I hope I am also, do it for different reasons, but with a purpose that passes the pursuit of fame. My stories sometimes reflect what has happened to me, or what I wish would have happened.

    I love your work and spirit that shows in your writing.


  13. Thanks, Jaye. If you and I were seeking fame, we would probably be publishing under our names instead of pseudonyms. I think we do seek validation, but speaking for myself I get it both by the act of writing and by the insightful comments I receive from readers. I know it’s a satisfying process for you also.

  14. jgavinallan

    Thank you so very much


  15. This is why I don’t write too many stories. Nothing seems original.
    I have officially gone obsessed on the royals, that was the coolest thing ever. Well, almost the coolest thing ever. Osama being killed was better.

    Thank you so much for defending me. I was being crucified. That one guy was such a total mother lover. I never even claimed I knew all the answers and to call me ignorant and stupid? Self-righteous pig!

    Sorry I haven’t been around recently. It wasn’t deliberate and will catch up.

  16. Real life intervenes and takes precedence, Lisa. You didn’t really need any defense, but I’m glad you felt supported. I only watched highlights of the wedding, but I did like the tunes. As to the post-assassination tailgate party currently in progress, I’m going to wait and think about it a bit more.

    • i wrote the above before i knew his daughter got to see it all happen. i don’t really feel bad that Osama is dead, but I feel bad for the women and children. I feel bad that they mowed those men down if you saw the pics, though I doubt they were good people.
      It was for the best that Osama was killed b/c heaven knows what Al Qaieda would do if he was in custody.

      As for the guy on that blog my conscience started eating me for calling him self-righteous and I apologized.

      • I wouldn’t worry so much about it, Lisa. News topics bring out strong emotional reactions in people, yet few of us know the full story about anything told to us by government until years later when documents come out and people write deathbed memoirs and all. Most never knew until long after that Harding impregnated a secretary in a laundry closet, that FDR really could not walk at all, that JFK had weekly hookers brought to the White House etc.

        So far the Admin. has made over the assassination mission story several times, going from “resisted/used a human shield who was killed” to “unarmed/no human shield/she was just there & got shot in the leg”.
        He lived in that compound for a year. I have this awful feeling (with no evidence except my past experience of govt. lying) they knew where he was for some time and did this as part of a re-election strategy. Nice that it all happened just when Obama’s poll numbers were down and before GOP candidates can organize their official campaigns. They keep using that term “high value target”. Value can mean a lot of things. Anyway, see? I can be as much a captive of dark fantasy as anyone. I don’t really know nuthin’ cept what they tell me.

  17. It’s so hard to be alternative or unique. I have so many friends who love being iconoclasts because they love a band or a book only admired by 1% of the population, but that’s still millions of people.

  18. I think I had a thought about this post, but after reading all these comments I can’t remember it now. One image that flits in front of my mind’s eye is the ad for some bank that says “we’re like you…a little different”. They’re hoping to reach millions of people with this line, millions of people who think themselves quirky and nonconformist. Sadly, how we bank is not where our uniqueness lies, m’thinks. As ye bank, so shall they reap.

    • By the by, I love the image at the top. Can I use it? Can I alter it? Can I say it’s my original idea? Thanks, bud.

      • Sure thing. Use it as desired. I’ll make more. (Glad you got the joke.) Should I manage to finish some magazine-worthy stories or a screenplay or play, I’ll copyright them. The idea of holding blog posts at that level of esteem is silly to me. I love reading what you write, and I love what I write too, but it’s still just heartfelt amateur doggerel after all. It’s not literature.

  19. The idea of “give credit where credit is due” comes from the ego and its inherent need to be recognized and validated. You said so yourself, when you brought the topic up and then explained that you probably opinionated on it because you were depressed and looking for someone to understand you in your loneliness. We want to know we exist and have value and can participate in the conversation.

    Unfortunately these days, the most value comes in a monetary form. People become recognized for their ideas by suing those who use them.

    There’s a theory that’s been around for generations that states that we are all born with the same level of intelligence, knowledge, comprehension, ideas, etc., and that its all just a matter of the right personal stimulation to bring it out of the subconscious.

    And no, I’m not making any of this up 😉

    • Lovely to run into you, J. All the nature vs nurture theories are really interesting. I’ve been all over the map in my positions on them, depending on my age and circumstances up to that point in life.

      I didn’t even touch on the fact that, in the legal sense, one can’t “own” what hasn’t been “sold”, and since our blog posts are self-published for free, they aren’t really product. Your statement about people suing for recognition reminded me about that. Thanks.

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