A tale of original copies and copied originals

“Zynoeia – a fantasy kingdom of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. It’s a land where gem stones rain from the sky, evaporating as soon as they land on solids, and where all sorts of bizarre creatures roam. There are gigantic Venus flytraps exhaling neon-coloured gases, scarabaei that can clasp your vocal cord to rob you of your voice, bears born with the armour of terracotta soldiers strapped onto their black fur, submarine fish that —”

“Who’s the main character of your story though?”, interrupts my sister impatiently. 

“I was going to get to that part,” I grunt. “The main character, Lynn, gets teleported from the human world into Zynoeai due to extraordinary tensions between the universes and the forces of destiny. She lands in the middle of a gory ambush executed by the ice army on a settlement in the earth kingdom. The ice army represents a mutation of the water tribe which seeks to dominate the whole Zynoeian continent. Before Lynn’s arrival, they already sieged the fire realm, banishing the entire fire nation. Therefore, the earth, air, and water nation must unite to defend themselves, or otherwise they will be annihilated too. My story follows the journey of Lynn as she prepares alongside the good element people to stop the evil ice army. Eventually, she plays a strategic centre piece for restoring the peaceful balance in Zynoeia since she is the only one capable of wielding the powers of all four elements. Whereas every Zynoeian’s fighting abilities are limited to the craft of their own element, Lynn isn’t bound to one element by birth — ” 

“Right, so your story basically copies the Avatar,” interrupts my sister again.

The Avatar?”, I ask with a smack of suspicion swinging in my tone. 

“Yeah, the fantasy story about Aang, the avatar, who is the only one capable of controlling the powers of all four elements. He’s also the main figure in fighting the antagonistic fire nation which has already eradicated the air folk and seeks to diminish the other element nations too. Come on, you must’ve heard of it?”

My cluelessness gapes at my sister as deeply as my jar drops after learning about the existence of this Avatar story.  “I swear I’ve never heard of this Avatar thing!”, I say, attempting to defend myself and my precious novel. I’m shocked to hear that there’s apparently another fantasy story almost exactly mirroring my very own one.   

This conversation happened when I was twelve years old. Now, more than twelve years later, I’m still struggling to accept that somebody else concocted a fantasy novel suspiciously similar to my own manuscript. It bugs me. I could never publish Zynoeia without having to ward off plagiarism claims, despite the fact that my fiction exclusively originated from my own creativity. At the same time, I’m amazed by the absurd congruence between my manuscript and the Avatar saga. I mean, what are the odds of two people conceiving the same, complex idea independently of each other?

However, as it turns out, my case of seeming unoriginality isn’t a rarity. The music giants Led Zeppelin, for example, were accused of having stolen chords from the song Taurus by Spirit for their famous Stairway to Heaven. They even had to fend off these accusations in court. Lana Del Rey also faced malevolent head wind from plagiarism claims in regard to her title Get Free and its resemblance to a composition by Radiohead. The band Coldplay had it even worse: they were hit by not just one, but by two legally-enforced doubts about the originality of their hit Viva La Vida. Ultimately, Coldplay won their disputes in court, as did Del Rey and Led Zeppelin.

You could scroll much longer through the list of allegations questioning the originality of popular pieces. In fact, the exhaustive list of examples continues beyond the music domain to include works from many other backgrounds, such as literature, art, inventions, science, technology, etc. Considering the many coincidental analogies throughout history, one question pierces through my mind: does the concept of originality truly exist, or is originality a mere phantom of our vanity? 

It could be argued for the latter. If originality meant the creation of novel work from first-hand insight, then true originals would be impossible to deliver. Nobody is immune to the influences of our surroundings: any thought shooting through our head or any idea surfacing from our inner depths is inevitably inspired by what we surround ourselves with. Any expression from our internal stands in constant, conscious as well as unconscious correspondence with our impressions from the external. This is what scientific evidence argues. It is thus inherently impossible to pluck strictly first-hand originated ideas from our mind because anything we conceive naturally embeds some recycled form of the information we sifted from our environment. 

On the other hand, however, you could reason that originality is present when we prepare this information that we distilled from our environment according to our very own recipe. By adding your own spice to existing ingredients you assemble information in a novel mix that could indeed be labelled as an original piece. Yes, your creation may possess a similar taste to somebody else’s blend, but the addition of your own flavours – your distinct character and expertise – will result in an original dish. 

In conclusion, the question of true originality ends in a stalemate. Depending on the definition of originality itself, there’s spacious ground to plant scepticism about the originality of somebody’s ideas. Simultaneously, there’s ample room to prune such claims – unless somebody copied with unambiguous, millimetre-fine precision. Distinguishing an original from a copy is tricky, in part even for the originator themselves because unconscious influences of our ideas cannot be tracked. So, the quarrel over true originality involves too much subjectivity to allow for an objective verdict. The way forward may be to foster a work ethics according to which creators must respect the work of others. That includes the honest acknowledgement of inspirational sources as well as the acceptance that no original will be free of accidental copying.   

[Ricarda Senger, she/her, rikkisdiary.com]

[Photo credit: Andrea Piacquardio]

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