Main Page > Rants > Superstition
"Originality is undetected plagiarism." (see quotes)
So goes the saying, and I'm very fond of quoting it myself - but in a half-joking manner. If originality really is undetected plagiarism, then nothing can ever be original, and that makes me think there's something wrong with the generally accepted definition of originality. That, or the saying is slightly overstating the case, which is almost certainly true.
Someone complained that the first main action sequence of "Star Wars - episode II: Attack of the Clones" was unoriginal because it was essentially a car chase, which has of course been done before. Sure, maybe this person was just so vehemently anti-new-star-wars that they weren't entirely with it, but this illustrates one of the problems with the way people think about originality. If you generalise your definition too much, then you're going to hate every film you ever seen: "What, this film has a romance in it? Been done. One character trying to kill another one? Seen it all before. A story about human beings on earth? Bo-ring!"
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying plagiarism is good - a film can emulate the style of the Matrix, and that means the style isn't original but it's got a good chance of being a cool film anyway. But if a film does that and also has a "Rules only apply if you believe in them" philosophy, with fights in similar locations (naming no monks), then it pushes the idea a little too far for me.
This is how it should be:
As Eddie Izzard pointed out, the American legal classifications of "Murder One" and "Murder Two" use a potentially flexible idea: the assignment of different degrees of something to different numbers. Based on this idea, I think we should use the following new (!) definitions:
This would be what most people consider 'truly original': something that is Originality Zero has never been done before, ever. An example could be a line of dialogue (in a film, book or just real life) that has never even been thought of before the originator came up with it. Simple enough - and also, clearly, very demanding.
This is supposed to capture an extremely common occurrence which has no simple description with currently accepted language. Something is Originality One if the person that came up with it never came across it before. An example of this might be someone that has never seen or even heard of Star Wars (conceivable, if unlikely) writing "When I left you, I was but the learner. Now I am the master," in a story. A good line, but sadly one that someone else had come up with before.
This is when somebody sees something unoriginal, but they personally have never seen or heard of the original that it is based on. As far as they know, this thing is completely new, and they will probably be impressed. An example would be someone that hasn't seen the Matrix seeing "bullet time" in a film, and thinking it to be an amazing and genuinely original technique. They're wrong, but this doesn't affect how impressed they are by it.
Naturally there's a few complications here - some might argue that since you can never know everything that has happened, you will never be able to tell all of the different Originalities apart - and if you can't tell the difference, then that difference is irrelevant. This may be true, but I'm introducing these definitions for their usefulness: you can at least say "As far as I know, that idea is totally Originality One".
Note that "Originality is undetected plagiarism" becomes "Originality Zero is undetected Originality One and/or Two".
I don't actually use these phrases, but it's useful to have the ideas clearly defined in your head. For the record, when I say "I've come up with something original", that's shorthand for "I've come up with something that is at least Originality One". That's probably what most people actually mean by it, but it's good to have it said explicitly somewhere.
There is plenty of self-referentiality going on here, but that does not bother me.
-Tim Mannveille 2003
Main Page > Rants > Superstition