Say you get an idea. A great idea. One no one else has ever thought about. You want to tell the world about it, right? In writing. And then someone else says it was their idea, not yours, and accuses you of idea theft. Now your publisher wants proof that it really was your idea.
Are there ethical norms here?
Yes, but it’s complicated.
Most writers agree that what you write for publication represents an implicit contract between you and your readers. One of the four corners of this so-called implicit contract is the reader’s right to assume the ideas in your work are original. The other three corners are scholarly conventions about clarity, accuracy, and honesty. The reader assumes you’re either the sole originator of the written work, or that any ideas borrowed from others are clearly identified. “Ethical writing is a reflection of ethical practice.”
That part is easy. The complicated part is defining what an idea really is.
An idea is a thought, right? A thought that suggests a possible course of action? Synonyms for idea include scheme, plan, project, proposal, proposition, belief, brainchild, brainstorm, concept, essence, feeling, hint, insight, notion, object, perception, point, perception, principle, reaction, scheme, slant, suspicion, theory, view. Wow! That’s a lot of synonyms for one four-letter word. Definitions include “a concept or mental impression; an opinion, or a belief.” Chefs claim their menus will give you an idea of how interesting a low-fat diet can be. Doubters ask whether you have any idea of what really happened just before the Big Bang. Teachers ask where we got that idea. Merriam-Webster says an idea is, “a formulated thought or opinion.” Their alternate choice is, “whatever is known or supposed about something.” Some of us labor under twentieth-century ideas about premarital sex.
Like I said, ideas are complicated things. Anything hard to define is complicated, right?
Thinking creates ideas. So does dreaming. Inventors, musicians, writers, and filmmakers all work to create something new. When scientists approach problems from new angles it tends to change the way the world works. Elias Howe had a dream. He dreamt that cannibals threatened to kill him if he couldn’t come up with a design for a machine that could sew cloth. In his dream, the cannibals stabbed him with spears that featured a hole in the tip. That hole in a needle tip became the first sewing machine. Nothing unethical about that idea. Perfectly ethical to write about his idea because it was his.
Larry Page created Google because of a bad dream and fear of a clerical error. He was afraid that he was admitted into college because of an error and believed he would be kicked out of college at any moment once the error was discovered. He dreamt about downloading and storing the Internet on individual PCs. When he woke up, he was curious to see if it was possible; he did the math. The math said no, but it gave him the idea of creating a searchable database of links to web pages. That led to the creation of Google.
Arguably, our most famous president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. He campaigned against Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election by saying as little as possible about what he might do if elected. Unquestionably, his most memorable idea in his inaugural speech was, “all we have to fear is fear itself.” Since he wrote his own speech, and the “nothing to fear” quote was his own idea, there could be no ethical question. Right? But was it his? Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a gifted presidential scholar. In his most recent book, The Soul of America, he revealed that FDR drew on his reading for the most memorable line in that first inaugural address. Meacham cited: “Eleanor Roosevelt in saying that a friend of hers had given the president-elect a volume of the writings of Henry David Thoreau not long before the inauguration. Those writings contain the phrase, ‘Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.’” Rosenman recalled, “It may be that in this way he came across a phrase, it stuck in his mind, and found its way into the speech.”
So, if FDR read Thoreau’s phrase, remembered it, and used it in his speech without approbation, was he writing unethically? No. FDR’s own phrasing “all we have to fear is fear itself” is personalized, and substantively different for that reason. He didn’t need to cite Thoreau because his idea was different from FDR’s. Thoreau’s journal entry was written in an entirely different context, eighty years earlier, and using different words. The two ideas reflect different times and realities. There is no plagiarism, no idea theft. Writers don’t own the words we use, even if we have a copyright to the phrasing.
The bottom line regarding writing our ideas might be even more complicated than we think. Perhaps, there is no such thing as an original idea in the writing world. Creativity, not ethics, is the issue. How we think about it, how we exercise it, and who gets credit for it are important creative issues.
A book titled Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer, offers “insight into the nature, origin and application of our fundamental, foundational, and phenomenal ability to engage in creative acts.” Mr. Lehrer argues, “While the approaches and analyses differ somewhat at various points, one of the major points of convergence revolves around destroying the myth of the ‘solitary genius.’ Creativity doesn’t, in other words, happen in a vacuum – creative ideas are always inspired, nurtured, cajoled, and spurred forward by other ideas. Which means that creative people are always drawing on the work of others, consciously or unconsciously.”
I double that.