Talent borrows, Genius Steals

Yilin - Berwyn, Pennsylvania
Entered on April 6, 2008
Age Group: Under 18
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One sunny afternoon in Social studies class, my seventh grade teacher called up my up to her desk and handed me an essay with a big red “REDO” on it. “You should be happy that you didn’t receive a zero,” scolded Mrs. Cohen. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Not only was most of the diction different in places, but my paper clearly reflected my own ideas as well. Unfortunately I still had to rewrite it to earn a max grade of only a 70. Some might call it petty plagiarism but I believe that basing works off the works of others is not plagiarism, and is actually beneficial for society.

Every single well-known artist or writer has invariably pilfered, refined, and adapted from his influences. As the 19th century playwright Oscar Wilde put it, “Talent borrows, Genius Steals.” This statement holds true for not just school kids today, but also for the creative giants Mozart and Shakespeare. It is widely acknowledged that Mozart drew heavily from Bach, Bach ripped off from Lutheran church hymns, and the Lutheran church stole from the … you get the idea. Similarly, Shakespeare, the great father of English literature, utilized the works of contemporary writers such as Chaucer and Marlowe. By no means is this only related to artists; even the great scientist Newton claimed, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This human trait to copy and expand on the original idea was and is essential for the success of mankind. A fine example of this is the wheel. Cavemen make wheel. The early Mesopotamians realized that two wheels held together made a cart. Then some rather clever person stuck four wheels together and voila, he had the first car. Every great invention in human history has resulted from some guy looking at something and thinking, “What if I change this a bit?” or “What if I add this here”?

Of course I still follow my own philosophy. From my own limited experiences in writing classes, I have often found myself using phrases that seemingly come to me out of nowhere. Upon further examination, I realize the reason why these sentence fragments are so familiar is because they have flown straight from the pages of the last few books I have read. Similarly, when trying to come up with new musical ideas on my trusty guitar I suddenly stop, play something, and smile when I realize how catchy it sounds…. only to find the only reason why it sounds so good is because it’s a song I already know. Do I stop to mentally discard the stolen riff or delete the reheated sentences? Nope. I look for ways to improve them.