Inspiration comes from all sorts of places: great songs are sampled, real life events lead to novels, even Shakespeare nicked the concepts for his plays. But when does inspiration become plagiarism? And does the intent matter?
This week, a teacher from our part of the world sent a letter to her children. It thanked them for the hard work they’d put in for their exams, but also said that test results aren’t everything, and there are many other ways to be successful and clever.
Someone posted the letter on social media. And as sometimes happens with social media, it spread. Like wildfire. By the end of the week, the letter had been read up and down the country, had generated thousands of comments and was in the major papers. It was praised as having an inspiring message for children who go through endless rounds of testing and exams.
There was just one problem: the teacher had copied the letter from someone else. And once this was realised, the backlash began. Toby Young, columnist for The Telegraph, has called for the headteacher’s dismissal. His view is that copying is something that we should be condemning at all turns in our schools, and any headteacher that puts their name to such a practice should be dismissed.
The case of the Barrowford letter is a tricky one: the intent behind the letter is clearly good. The teachers involved didn’t stand to make any profit from the missive. Surely, they imagined that it would be a nice thing to send the children, and that it would never go beyond the small town in Lancashire where they live. But irrespective, they still copied and didn’t initially say who had written the original. Technically, they are in the wrong – though it must be said that once the letter spread, they did cite the original source.
This opens an interesting question for content marketers. Inspiration comes from many places – we all take the works of others and expand on them, alter them, tweak them to suit our purposes. This is nothing but a good thing. We need to develop, to take an idea and make it better. If we didn’t feed off each other we would stagnate. Some of the most famous and successful books, films and songs of recent times sample, borrow or are inspired by other artists. Bridget Jones’ Diary owes rather a lot to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Beyonce’s mega hit “Crazy in Love” samples 70’s song “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)” by Chi-Lites, and when it comes to films, Tarantino, Kubrick, Lucas and countless other iconic film makers have “paid homage” and taken inspiration from films, poetry and other sources. The results have been treasured and loved by audiences the world over. To borrow a thought from French director, Jean-Luc Godard: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
It’s vital that where an idea has been copied, a line borrowed, a thought duplicated, it is attributed. Otherwise, there will be no intellectual property, which means our great ideas are worthless. These ideas are what fuel marketing, and without protection and ownership we wouldn’t be able to function as businesses. Countless legal cases have backed this up – some extremely famous songs have been caught up in such battles, including Creep by Radiohead, Viva La Vida by Coldplay and Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice.
But where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism? For us, it comes from putting your own stamp on it. Ideas are great, but appealing to the audience you are creating the content for is key: not just to avoid copying, but to deliver a really effective campaign. The golden rule must be applied to every idea, irrespective of the source: what can we do to make this specific, interesting and engaging to your audience.
Looking at the letter from Barrowford school, there are several comments made that aren’t strictly relevant to the children taking KS2 tests. The language is Americanised and the details about the testing aren’t quite relevant.
Where’s your standpoint: did the primary school teacher cross a line and is now beyond redemption? Or does naivety and a good intention mean that this is one instance where plagiarism shouldn’t be outright condemned?