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Plagiarism and Cannibalism Both Natural and Necessary, say Writers and Musicians

by Tom Johnson on Mar 7, 2007 •
categories: technical-writing

In a podcast on plagiarism by Public Radio International, Jonathan Lethem interviews Jimvoid Fleming, a writer, and Paul Miller, a musician, about their thoughts on the controversial practice of reusing others' content without the owners' consent. They refer to plagiarism as recycling what's been done before, "cannibalizing" it and creating something new that is composed of the old. Fleming quotes Mary Shelley:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.

In other words, writers don't create content from nothing. They take the chaos of life, fragments here and there, sound bytes, characters, events, ideas, which all swirl in randomness without order. They shape it into a form. In this sense, the writer is "plagiarizing" because he or she isn't creating something entirely new. The writer is repurposing existing content.

This repurposing is more apparent with remixed music. You take a sound here, a riff there, and you remix and reuse it in a new way. Are you plagiarizing the former? Or are you giving the content new life? A great example of this remixing is with the pilotless drone riff, which was initially a listener comment, but was remixed into an urban sound. Miller even says humans are plagiarized because we're recycled DNA.

Plagiarism is probably too strong a word to describe the phenomenon of reuse they're talking about. They're not discussing blatant copying of the original and reproducing it without adding anything to it. They're exploring the idea that nothing is original. Everything builds on previous ideas, structures, methods, stories, concepts.

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Essentially everything in life that enters into our mind changes us; it works through us and comes out different. We are often unconscious of the reuse. We naturally imitate the style of authors we read, plagiarizing their structure. We build upon ideas that strike us as well-founded, and the ideas become so ingrained in our perspective that we don't realize the original source was not within ourselves. We are socially constructed. Admitting this makes embracing Web 2.0—where content contributed by myriad authors builds upon each other, and the idea of originality swirls in a fuzzy cloud—more natural. Could this be any truer than with blogs?

I would argue that the more material is recycled and built upon, the better your content. If you write without regard to what's been done, without knowledge of your past, you write under a veil of ignorance.

Web 2.0 might be defined as user-powered content. We are not static readers of information. We comment, we post, we podcast, we make mashups, we quote and build upon it, we take what was originally a simple concept and layer it with new meaning and depth. Like the Bakhtin's concept of diaglossia, it is the mixing of tongues and voices that creates appeal and energy.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.