Today’s post is part one in a series we’re doing about things we all do. On the internet. That need to stop. Today’s topic? Knowing when not to copy another’s work. Got an idea for this series you’d like us to write about? That “Leave a reply” button is all yours, babe.
A little anecdote for you.
I learned the word “plagiarize” when I was in second grade. I learned it because it was something I had done, and my mother felt the need for me to understand that plagiarism is a big deal – illegal, actually. And to be clear, I had very intentionally stolen something that I in no way had written myself, and not because I wasn’t capable of writing, or because I hadn’t done the assignment and needed something to submit. No, I stole because I really, really liked it.
It was a poem my older brother was working on memorizing as a fourth grade class assignment. He would walk around the house reciting it, and it wasn’t long before I knew it by heart, too. So, when my own assignment came to write an original story, I knew that the poem would be such a good fit. I eagerly wrote it down, and made a few additions of my own.
My teacher, of course, loved it. She was very impressed, so much so that she asked me point-blank, “Did you write this?”. I told her I had, because 1.) It was in my handwriting, so I had written it, and 2.) I had made the additions, see, so it was my work. She told me it was very, very good, and even had me take it down to the first graders to read it during their story time. She called my mother to tell her I could be published. My mom knew me a little better, and knew to be a little more skeptical. It wasn’t long before the truth came out, and it was embarrassing all around. I will never forget the apology letter I wrote to my teacher (on Babysitters’ Little Sister stationary, FYI), and how nervous and ashamed I was handing it to her across her desk.
So yes, for me, plagiarism has very strong emotional associations of, “No! Bad! Don’t do it!”. Still, plagiarism hits another nerve for me as someone who tries very hard to be original. The internet today – with its Google Images and Pinterest and Etsy – can easily take every good idea you’ve ever had and make it widely accessible to anyone.
And don’t get me wrong, that’s often a good thing. It’s quite possible that someone who has never met me is reading this (holla at me in the comments, don’t be shy!), and that’s thrilling. That’s the 21st century.
Pinterest and its friends do wonderful things, and being inspired to make something is not bad. I’m not saying you should never copy something you see on the internet; tutorials are, well, tutorials, after all. My days as a theatre student were littered with the phrase, “You’re only as good as who you steal from,” and there’s a lot of truth to that. We probably have never encountered a truly “original” idea, and a site dedicated to the sharing of ideas can be an incredible resource for creativity.
But what happens when we come across something that we just love so much, and we want it for a photo collage we’re making, and we just can’t believe someone would charge $30 for a print of it and dangit, all we have to do is crop out that watermark and it’s perfect? Just there for the taking.
You walk away is what. Every good idea you see came from someone who is probably very proud of that idea. And they are likely using that creativity to help support their family, or themselves, or even just support their own self-esteem.
Aight, this post is getting all kinds of preachy, and I think you get the point I’m trying to make here, but let me leave with one last (super soapbox-y) point before I offer some solutions: I firmly believe that what I create helps define who I am. Were I to choose to present or use another person’s work as my own, I fail to do that. I would know less and less what I believe and stand for, and eventually I would lose the foundations of who I am.
Do. Do things of your own thinking. Create for yourself. The more you do it, the more you will realize you’ve got a lot of great ideas, too. And the more you will realize how much work goes into creating something original. So then, on those occasions when something really is so wonderful to you, you will be all the more willing to back up that love with appropriate support to its originator. Sometimes that will mean money, sure, but more often than not it’s just citing things properly. Reach out to that artist/writer/crafter/photographer and let them know how much you like what they’re doing, and tell them about what you would like to do with their work. Cooperate. Collaborate. But don’t steal.