What Is an Original Idea?

Guest poScreen Shot 2016-01-23 at 10.27.14 AMst by Kelley Dodge ’16

The concept of “authorship” has greatly evolved throughout history. While during the medieval period authors were regarded as individuals who reproduced and reshaped past material for contemporary use, today, we typically think of authors as individuals who create their own original content. In modern times the author is given much more power, not only credited with the ownership of the texts, but also regarded as a primary factor in textual meaning. As creators of the text and owners of the intellectual property, authors are regarded as creative geniuses.

While in the past it was acceptable for authors to share or borrow ideas, this practice would be considered wholly unacceptable today. Because of this shift in thought, modern day copyright laws emerged to protect work and prevent practices like reshaping from happening. However, thinking about copyright laws can be difficult. In a world where knowledge is socially constructed, isn’t everything really an extension of another idea? Do individual ideas and original content actually exist? For this reason, copyright laws seem to be difficult to define and enforce.

In the book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker argues that there are really only seven stories in the world and each story is a variation of one of these themes. The seven themes are: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. If yoScreen Shot 2016-01-23 at 10.27.26 AMu think about stories in terms of Booker’s notion, then how can copyright laws be enforced? Don’t all stories have at least some aspect that is plagiarized, even if it is done subconsciously?

Take, for example, the claim by the estate of Adrian Jacobs that J.K. Rowling had lifted much of the plot for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire from Jacobs’ book Willy the Wizard. While there are certainly some small similarities, judges ruled in favor of J.K. Rowling, stating that there was enough of a “stark contrast” between the two pieces. This is just one instance that proves how subjective copyright laws can be. It is important to be aware of plagiarism and copyright rules, understanding that there is a fine line between what is too similar and what is different enough to an original piece.

For more information about the Harry Potter plagiarism story, check out this article.

To read about some of the similarities between the two books, read this article.

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