14 October 2010

Borrowing Trouble

Although I enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell's books The Tipping Point and Blink, I was less impressed by Outliers (so much so that it took me until page 30 before I remembered I'd already read it once) and so I never bothered to check out What the Dog Saw, which I had thought was a book of short stories anyway. Actually, it's a compilation of some of Gladwell's articles from the New Yorker archives and while each article does tell a tale (or three), they are based on true stories.

I picked up a copy of the book in my library at the weekend when, once again, I had run out of books to read. Gladwell is an excellent story teller. Not all of the topics interested me a great deal but others were fascinating. I particularly liked the story of John Rock, who helped to create the contraceptive pill but whose desire to please the Church by creating a more "natural" pill (that allowed women to have periods "like normal") may have failed to prevent the unnecessary deaths of many women from breast cancer. As with most of the other articles, this one went off on a number of different tangents but pulled together nicely in the end.

Another article looked at the case of a British playwright, Bryony Lavery, whose play about a female psychiatrist turned out to have borrowed substantially from the life of psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis--and from a profile Gladwell himself had written about Lewis. In the piece, Gladwell compares inspiration, accidental borrowing and deliberate plagiarism across the arts. The guitar riff in Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit sounds a lot like part of Boston's More Than a Feeling but is this plagiarism? What about the four distinctive opening notes in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony: had they really never been played before in that combination?

It happened that I was retelling the anecdotes from the last article last night in a Soho restaurant. I'm sure it was just a coincidence and I wasn't being overheard but I was surprised to hear the same topic being discussed on the Today Programme this morning: does musical inspiration count as plagiarism and if so, was Handel a thief?

Last night's Mad Men also touched on the nature of plagiarism, accidental or otherwise. If an award-winning creative director in an ad agency comes up with a lot of great ideas, who's to say that he hadn't already thought of the idea that he saw in the portfolio of a mostly unemployable young thing? Of course, once your client likes the idea and you can't talk them out of it, hiring the young thing is the only solution. And of course, the very same storyline happens in Matt Beaumont's book E, where the (admittedly talentless and downright horrible) creative director pinches an idea he spots in the portfolio of a young creative team and pitches it himself. Later, he has to hire them both before they sue his ass.

Yet anyone who watched last night's Apprentice will know how hard it is to come up with anything truly original. At least, anything that is truly original and not a piece of crap.

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