So, how creative are we human beings? I believe it was Solomon who said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” And who knows, maybe he was quoting someone when he said that. The manuscripts of his writings have gotten a bit smudged over the years.
But I have wondered from time to time, even though we may not be giving a direct quote, is all creativity based on something that has gone before? Music, writing, painting, dance . . . even inventions and engineering, even medicine, math, philosophy … it all stands on the shoulders of what goes before.
So, just where does plagiarism leave off and creativity begin?
I’m sure that must be a valid question. And it gets my standard answer: I DON’T KNOW. It’s one of those questions that if I knew the answer, I could write a book and get rich. We all recognize that if something is used word for word; stroke for stroke; step for step , one must put quotes around it and attribute it. But that leaves a vast gray area which goes from being inspired by something to copying something verbatim. What if you build on information or a foundation that had gone before? Every time a painter uses Titian red , does he need to give credit as such? Every time an architect builds a house across a stream , does he need to credit Frank Lloyd Wright for the idea? Every time a choreographer uses a certain dance step , should the original choreographer be credited? I know that’s done in ice-skating ; when a performer does certain jumps they are named after the person who invented them. But in many instances that information is lost in antiquity or unavailable.
Just how far can one go before tipping over that edge into plagiarism ? If I copy a poem and change two words, is that plagiarism? How about ten words? How about the rhyming words? What if I’m inspired by a piece of music ? How far can I use a music quote before it is considered an infringement? And yet, with only twelve notes in our musical vocabulary, don’t you suppose that most all of the combinations have been used?
O.K., here it comes. Here’s MY take on creativity and plagiarism … and yes, my opinion and $3.00 will buy you a cup of coffee … usually. Creativity is frequently a repositioning for elements gleaned from other sources in our lives. We may not even know or remember the source. But the creativity comes in the juxtaposing of those disparate parts into a new creative whole. Repackaging, if you will. Maybe no one before you ever thought of putting Twinkle Little Star (Mozart) into the 5/4 rhythm used by Brubeck. So then, is it mine or Mozart’s or Brubeck/Desmond?
Even if it isn’t a direct quote, it’s always simpler, kinder, more generous to credit the inspiration whether it’s needed or not. How easy to say, “I was inspired by so and so or such and such.” That validates both the giver and the taker … and with the price of parking, validation is essential.
Adrienne Jacoby is a 40-plus-year resident of Shasta County and native-born Californian. She was a teacher of vocal music in the Enterprise Schools for 27 years and has been retired for 11 years.
A musician all her life, she was married to the late Bill Jacoby with whom she formed a locally well -known musical group who prided themselves in playing for weddings, wakes, riots, bar mitzvas and super market openings. And, oh yes . . . she has two children, J’Anna and Jayson.