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Original as Sin
by Debbie Hill

All through the ages, the question of originality has been a contentious one.

Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde were both repeatedly accused of plagiarism. There was a huge outcry over the novel Wild Oats which was said to be a poor copy of Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers. Michael Jackson was the subject of a court case in which an Italian songwriter Al Bano alleged that one of Michael's songs was a direct copy of his I Signi Di Balaka. Music copying over the internet using Napster and MP3 has been the subject of several high profile court cases and recently the allegation was levelled at J.K.Rowling that her best-selling Harry Potter books were a copy of an earlier American sorcery series.

The American philosopher Eric Hoffer believed that humans have an innate desire to mimic and said, 'When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other. Originality is deliberate and forced and partakes of the nature of a protest.' Apt when you consider that famous attempts at originality have often been nothing but childish attempts to shock - take Damian Hirst's sheep for example. Or many of the poor attempts at painting which we call modern art but in reality are nothing more than a few blobs of paint flung at a canvas as a gesture against the exclusive world of art.

Originality is thus rebellion; an adolescent punk-like demand to be noticed that has become synonymous with creativity. As a society we pride ourselves on our great, creative literary tradition and then stand our literary heroines up on statuesque pedestals only to bring them crashing to the ground when we feel that they have not been original or if they are discovered to have committed the heinous sin of being influenced by another's material.

J.K. Rowling could be viewed as the unfortunate victim of a lawsuit, rather than an alleged idea thief, since her working of the Harry Potter story - even if it is found to be a borrowed idea - has been considerably more successful than the original and probably because of its infinitely superior writing. Frankly it would be ridiculous to suggest that any writer, painter or musician could create their masterpieces in a reference-less vacuum. Particularly with regards to literature, no author could write out of a void as the development of the literary canon illustrates. Authors rather re-form and rework the materials they have to hand in whichever time and circumstance they find themselves in.

The Greek tradition believes that any story can be fitted into a stock set of thirty six story lines so by the very nature of probability there will be many, many people in the world with similar or near-identical ideas and concepts. Watch the credits after any soap opera and you will find a paranoid disclaimer stating that the programme is fictitious and that resemblances to any real people or events are purely coincidental. Proof that imitation is inescapable but also strangely frowned upon, as though to admit that a script-writer may draw his inspiration from reality would be to admit to some kind of personality theft. It is odd that we live in a society which finds it so acceptable to jeer at writers and painters who we believe to be copycats, yet we find it acceptable that high street stores copy catwalk fashion in the most bold, outright way, promoting their cheap copied designs in low-brow magazines that show ordinary women how to get the catwalk look for a fraction of the price.

This hypocrisy contradicts the American school of philosophy - Herman Melville and Harold Brockley among others - that believes that it is better to fail at originality than succeed in imitation. The irony of fashion, however, is that often, like concerning the wearing of fur, some people will applaud the imitation and curse the real thing whilst others curse the imitation and covet the real thing.

The question of originality never fails to provoke heated debate, particularly concerning royalties due to journalists, photographers and artists whose work is being disseminated freely across the internet. We are living in a society where it is becoming acceptable to steal images from the net, download essays on every subject imaginable and in the case of lazy students, hand in the wholly plagiarised article as though it were their own work. And considering that there are over a billion pages on the web, there's hardly any risk of getting caught and thrown out of college.

There is even a website, The Seven by Nine Squares, which positively promotes plagiarism, believing that as a society we justify our existence by its uniqueness and that in this we are deluded. It is true that to be entirely original one would have to live in isolation from the rest of the world with no outside influences - an impossible scenario since only death could prevent someone from experiencing the influence of any of the senses, sight, sounds, touch, smell and taste. And living as we do in a cyclical world where routine and traditions of experience triumph - like the ritual year of travel - is it any wonder that we arrive at common truths?

As Tennyson so aptly commented, 'Are not human eyes all over the world looking at the same objects and must there not consequently be coincidences of thought and impressions and expressions?' Are we to limit our view of originality to a restrictive one which implies that the Big Bang was the only original thing in the world and everything afterwards was mere imitation? Far healthier surely to believe in an originality which shows itself not in what we generate entirely by ourselves but in what we create by borrowing from other people - an original slant on a familiar situation, a fresh way of painting a sky or a radical method of shooting a film.

Tarantino, for example, is a film-maker who has made a career out of sampling the work of others. Spending his life working in a video store, his head must be one huge film reference library, so it is hardly surprising that he rejuggles film excerpts and ideas to create his own movies. Even the much lauded 'Blair Witch Project', a supposedly original film, has been found to be a copy of a previous student film that also used a video camera and was set in some woods. Yet this hardly takes away from its cinematic originality to the millions of people who have watched and enjoyed it.

Consciously or not, imitation is a human inevitability.

To be truly original is not to be human as people are limited by their existence and experiences, as shown by a world history which is littered with repetition. Even what I am writing is a collaboration of sources, a small-scale robbery of words much in the way that the majority of our tabloids and broadsheets are awash with recycling of yesterday's news and re-hashing of old feature articles into something innovative that readers will digest as new. And perhaps that's OK.

Maybe we should congratulate those who can succeed in reworking someone else's idea into something that is new, different or infinitely better, whether it be a record, a painting, a documentary or a novel. Genuine originality lies only in the realm of fantasy and should be allowed to stay there. Instead we should celebrate a history of revision and marvel at the fact that our culture is sustained by a multitude of people continuously breathing new life into a multitude of old ideas.

©2000 Debbie Hill
( who borrowed her name from the other 4,300 Debbie Hills out there)

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