Remix Culture 1.0: Twain to Keller on Plagiarism

Remix Culture is a term popularized by Lawrence Lessig to describe how we continuously reinvent and reuse bits of culture. The most obvious examples are song remixes, mash-ups, fan music videos, and the like. Lessig argues that copyright laws should be reformed to make such remixes easier for fans to produce and distribute. It turns out that Mark Twain held a quite similar opinion, as laid out in a letter he sent to Helen Keller in response to learning of an allegation of plagiarism against her based on the similarities between a story she had published and an earlier work. Here’s Twain:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men—but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

The whole letter, posted on the fantastic blog Letters of Note, is worth a read.


1 Comment

  1. jlundy

     /  May 9, 2012

    Obviously a great quote! Also, I think that the shadow of plagiarism in academic work hinders the natural process of learning. For instance, if we recognize that many students are incapable of handling the English language fully from the start, why don’t we have them start learning to write by recomposing the words of others? That seems a lot more natural than imposing upon them all the rules of grammar and then telling them to produce flawless English based on the rules they have now memorized.