Copy This, Baby: Nothing’s Unique In the Age of Google

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A few years ago, I found myself on the giant playground known as the Google (GOOGL) “campus” in Mountain View, Calif., speaking to a small group of Google employees about, among other things, originality. I tried to make what I thought was a pretty unoriginal point.

The culture, I suggested, rewarded successful copying and ignored or even denounced originality. Some examples: If a talking cat gets a million page views on YouTube, then within days there will be a million talking cats, dogs, ferrets, etc.; American Idol contestants are always imitating a famous singer’s style; the knowing ironies of the mash-up are more appealing to its audience than what is being mashed up. Yet at the same time, the Internet delights in tearing down figures who come to prominence on the basis of some original achievement. Lady Gaga has become renowned for imitating Madonna, but if Madonna ever got caught texting something insulting about Lady Gaga, heaven help her.

After my talk, a few people who had been in the audience came up to me and began to press me on the issue of originality. One of them asked me bluntly: “What is so great about being original?” I was about to launch with confidence, not to say smugness, into some mildly condescending explanation of originality when I realized that, in fact, I had nothing to say. The inestimable value of originality was just one of those fundamentals I had never questioned. I stood there, hemming and hawing, desperate for something to offer. “Don’t you think it’s important,” I ventured, “to … er … well … to … hmmm … march to the beat of a different drummer?” There it was–in the defense of originality, I had uttered one of the most celebrated bromides in the history of banality. But the response of one of the Googlians was even more astounding. “That’s a great line,” he said, without the slightest irony.

The very idea sounds so 19th century.

We are now in the middle of a crisis of originality, and partly this is due to the raging dogs of information that Google has unleashed. We are so inundated by what has been written and said, and by what was written and said just seconds ago, that it is becoming impossible to sort out who said what first. Not only that, but as the idea of intellectual property–of copyright–has been thrown out the window, the notion that thoughts are duplicable commodities has become more widespread. If Google can reprint articles from newspapers and magazines without permission, then why shouldn’t students copy passages verbatim from online reference sources like Wikipedia (it’s called “content scraping”) without attribution?

And if all information is now free, and if search engines lump all forms of knowledge together under the rubric of “information,” then isn’t the writer who copies from the published work of another writer simply exercising his right to drink from the public trough? As the definition of originality implodes in the capitalist anti-capitalist chaos of the Internet, instances of plagiarism multiply.

Copy This, Baby: Nothing’s Unique In the Age of Google