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Plagiarism and the Flow of Ideas

By Dean Whittaker

Our whole society is built upon the ideas of those who came before us. We are standing on their shoulders. To whom does an idea belong, and how do we gracefully, and sometimes with attribution, borrow the idea and apply it in a new way? We all are plagiarists in that we continuously use other people’s ideas, as if they were our own, to create new ideas.

The concept of innovation, doing things in a new way, is actually a form of plagiarism. I am currently enrolled in the New North Center for Design in Business program to teach design-thinking. Our class is learning about ideas, where they come from, and how to apply them through team effort within the constraints under which our businesses operate. Innovation is what enables us to successfully compete in a global marketplace. Our ability to create new ways of doing things and solving problems will determine our level of prosperity. Whether that innovation is in the arts or sciences doesn’t matter. It is the value that it brings that matters.

While working on the TEDx Macatawa event over the past year, I learned about “ideas worth spreading” and how the creative process gives us the ability to imagine. In his book Imagine, John Lehrer describes the creative process and how it works. He talks about cities and how they were one of our greatest creations because they result in a population density which speeds the flow of ideas and their adoption. The more dense the city, the lower the viscosity of ideas. Silicon Valley thrives on the free flow of ideas whereas other cities struggle as they hoard their ideas. He mentions how Shakespeare was repeatedly accused of plagiarism because of the “borrowing” he did of previous works.

Further, we call the spreading of ideas education. Education is defined as a process by which society deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills, customs, and values from one generation to the next, according to Wikipedia. Therefore, education could be considered a form of plagiarism.

A local community example of idea spreading in Holland, Michigan is the Startgarden (startgarden.com), an effort to stimulate new ideas by providing funding to develop them. This happens through a vetting process in which the public votes each week on which idea should receive $5,000 to be developed further with the goal of creating a viable West Michigan business. As one of the founders said, it is about creating an “idea friendly” community where ideas can flourish.

We live in the age of ideas. Ideas take on a life of their own as they are communicated from person-to-person. Once an idea leaves us, it is free to be added to, combined with other ideas, and otherwise modified and applied in new ways. In the collaborative space of the Internet, it is difficult to tell to whom an idea belongs. Austin Kleon, in his book Steal Like an Artist, tells us that if artists are honest, they would tell you that most of their ideas are stolen, and there is nothing really new.

According to a friend of mine, one of the biggest challenges facing us in this millennium is our ability to copy and use other peoples’ ideas with grace while maintaining trust as we profit from them. The problems we face today are so complex it takes a diverse group of individuals from multiple disciplines working together to solve them. Intellectual property and who owns it will be a question often asked.

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