A while ago, I noted the existence of iParadigm, a company in the US who had gone into the business of finding instances of Plagarism in students work. I was also fascinated by their iThenticate, a similar service that looked for what could be deemed was the unliscensed use of material protected under copyright in other media. I was intrigued by this company because their entire business model was contingent on the ability to make and use copies of freely available material as well as licensed material. But more than an amusing irony, I also wondered if such a system could be used by companies with the money to use the service to make sweeping claims for intellectual property. It could prove to be a tangled web, afterall.
Here is an Editor & Publisher story that chronicles the accusations of plagarism against Columnist Ann Coulter via this aforementioned service.
Apart from the interesting issues of the potential for money being the only deciding factor in who gets to use and own copies, this whole saga brings up a lot of interesting ideas about originality and it's limits.
Whether or not the accusations against Coulter are true or false, I was thinking about how many popular columnists, musicians etc. are often not the most "original" creators, but instead they are folks who are good at distilling ideas that are bubbling up on the fringes to the mainstream or capturing the mood and ideas of something a large group of people are already thinking or talking about. Conservative columnists and politicians, talk radio etc are all particularly good at this. The mainstream music industry has also proved adept at creating a version of underground music that will sell to a broad audience. The oft cited example in this regard is Madonna, a genius at distilation and making something her own.
But I don't think that the limits of originality are only about commercial culture, a simple case of co-opting the little guy and telling people what they want to hear. I suspect that most of cultural creation is derivative in some sense.
In terms of non-fiction writing, there are only so many ways you can state a fact. When I write reported article, I assemble the facts according to the strictures of a genre and while I may be pleased with some turn of phrase or particularly proud of a quote I managed to get or fact I managed to unearth, I know that there probably won't be a lot of difference between my piece and someone else's who is similarly trained. The originality comes simply from how I link the information together. But what sort of "property" claim can I make on that is a big question and one we're all grappling with now.
While I recorgise that there are people who knowingly attempt to co-opt and commercialise the creative work that other people do, I don't think this also means that non-commercial or idependent cultural creation works outside a sphere of shared knowledge and common ideas. Perhaps the difference will be recognising what we owe to each other rather than trying to stake out our own territory. This may be the spot from which true originality may flow.