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The Concept and Real-Life Application of Originality

Taylor Swift, an American pop and country music icon was sued in 2017 for copyright infringement for her top billing song, “Shake it Off” in her hit album, “Midnight.” The lawsuit alleged that Swift infringed on a song by Hall and Butler’s “Playas Gon’ Play.”

The lawsuit was recently dismissed with the judge ruling that the lyrics were “too banal” to be stolen. The Swift song contains a couple of lines, “Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play/And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”) that contained lyrical similarities to that of Hall and Butler’s “The playas gon’ play/Them haters gonna hate” and “Playas, they gonna play/And haters, they gonna hate.”

The crux of Swift’s filings was that “players are gonna play; and haters are gonna hate” are not original phrases. Admittedly, they’re really common phrases we read or hear every day. But this case really goes back to the concept of originality and how the general public understands and practices it. Originality is often invoked in cases of plagiarism and copyright infringement, words involving lack of originality.

Lawsuits in the music industry are quite common and even the famous ones like Beatle George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” was sued for his single hit that was copied from somebody else’s idea, Chiffon’s hit single, “He’s So Fine.” Harrison claimed he was not aware of the similarity and the judge agreed but made him pay for subconsciously plagiarizing the song. Plagiarizing somebody’s else’s work without the person himself knowing it.

It sounds ridiculous but there is a grain of truth in this. Why? Musicians for example, just like we do, listen to other people’s work especially popular and hit songs. Thus, it is entirely possible that a new creation is not really an original work. Music is easily embedded in our memory and therefore, it is so easy for a songwriter to be influenced by other people’s work. But do they constitute plagiarism or infringement on other people’s work?

Plagiarism is not illegal but unethical especially in academia, art, and letters. Copyright infringement is illegal, unethical, and will cost dearly. Our society being such a litigious one, that people will sue even for the slightest chance of getting money off of it. Litigations take time and money, so oftentimes, parties settle and so the public is denied such knowledge if plagiarizing was involved.

How about for ordinary mortals like us? What should be a good North Star? Perhaps delving in other areas of applications that we might arrive at a different appreciation of things. For example, Shakespeare is obviously a genius in his field but do his works really come with absolute originality labels? Of course not. The obvious ones like the alphabet, power of words, syntax, how to put them together in rhymes, he must have learned them from his teachers, mentors, people who blazed the trail before him.

Philosophers contributed greatly to his work in playwright and poetry, and he even said so. Yet, he is regarded as a great original genius. Similarly, Tomas Aquinas’ theology were highly influenced by Greek philosophers like Plato and Socrates. Plato, for instance, came up with the original thought that Aeon, in an allegorical play written by Socrates, was incapable of being an original genius who can come up with artistic masterpieces.

That Aeon’s work was influenced by higher order of spirits or spheres of being as influenced by a god or deity through dreams. Aquinas gave a name to Plato’s divine spirit and called it the Holy Spirit. On the theory of evolution, Plato used a term called organicism, that the universe is orderly and alive much like an organism. Darwin’s, of course, contrasts that of Plato that the emergence of life and mind are accidents of evolution and that mortal organisms are microcosms of the great macrocosm.

Before Christianity, there was a story in Greek mythology of Theseus, the son of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Theseus was the son of a virgin, princess Aethra who was visited by goddess Athena in her dreams instructing her to go to the beach, make an offering for her offspring to be blessed by them. She did and Poseidon appeared and got her pregnant.

Well, actually, Theseus was not the first virgin birth from antiquity. In Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Cyprus and Carthage, a mythological virgin mother with names derived from “Ma,” meaning mother, has been written. The Syrian Myrrha, Greek’s Maia, Maya in Hindu, and Mary in Hebrew and their half-human, half-divine child was often a popular subject of art and sculpture. Dionysus was among them, son of Zeus and born to a virgin Persephone.

In architecture, modernism is highly influenced by Roman, Greek, Victorian, Gothic or other European designs. Interestingly, no quotation marks or attribution to an author are expected. A house or building designs can contain features such as columns, arches, stairs, ceilings copied from foreign concepts, but modern architecture uses these features to be part of a new emphasis – aesthetics and functionality. Does that make the product an original design? No, but an evolution of a new way of thinking.

Such is the minutiae of originality. A bigger question is if modern art, humanities, music, science, or philosophy for that matter, can achieve originality especially knowing that Renaissance perhaps was the pinnacle of civilization? Meaning, everything after that was a derivation or innovation from the old ways of thinking.

Socrates is credited as the Father of Western Philosophy. Yet, Socrates created dialogues and plays based on Plato’s philosophy. Another claim is that Thales of Miletus is the Father of Western Philosophy who foretold that the “day will suddenly turn into darkness” during the Battle of Halys. Yet, it was Herodotus, the Father of History who retold the story.

When Socrates was tried and sentenced to die for not accepting the gods of Athens and of corrupting the young with his ideas, Plato concluded that democracy was a corrupt and unjust form of government. The corruption of current democracies, therefore, is not an original idea. Corruption in government is bane to democracy, yet it is an old idea given new life – by definition, makes such corruption of a concept, original.

The Third Edition of Webster’s International dictionary includes nearly half-a-million words, many of which we use in our everyday conversations or writings. Unless one is quoting a particular definition in the dictionary, we use words without attributing them to Webster. For example, plagiarism explains Merriam-Webster is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own; or to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from existing source.”

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