Stealing Ideas

PLAGIARISE: to steal (ideas, passages of text. Etc) from someone else’s work, and use them as if they were one’s own. (Chambers)

I love this word it offers infinite capacity to conjure with as well as being a great catalyst for argument.
According to Margaret Procter of the University of Toronto writing in the ‘Code of Behaviour on Academic Matters’ “Obviously it’s against the rules to buy essays or copy chunks from your friend’s homework, and it’s also plagiarism to borrow passages from books or articles or Web sites without identifying them.” So as long as you tell folk where you get stuff it’s okay to use other people’s ideas then?

Since the advent of easy Internet access there has been a great deal of concern in academic and corporate circles regarding the question of plagiarism and copyright theft. Whilst it may be just about acceptable to be labelled a plagiarist most people would choke on the idea of being labelled a thief but it’s a fine dividing line. Be that as it may it would seen sensible to not publish something on the internet if you were at all concerned about it being used without your knowledge.Just as an example of how easy and convenient it is to plagiarise something (text in this instance) sections of this article have been pulled off of the Internet and I have not even had to key it in.

According to Margaret Procter “you are safer to over reference than to skimp.” However the waters of academia are muddied by something called ‘common knowledge’. Ms Procter states “Facts easily found in reference books are considered common knowledge:” So let us assume that you come to a field of endeavour knowing absolutely nothing whatsoever about a given subject, in our case bonsai. Do you then owe a debt of gratitude to your teachers forever more or is they’re published or personally instructed knowledge then common? And, are their tree designs their own and is it ‘ethical’ for us to copy their work with similar material and to subsequently teach their imparted knowledge to others.

“If you are going to take someone else’s idea, don’t borrow it. Steal it!” I got this statement from Dick Lehman who got it from Marvin Bartel. Bartel stole it from poet Nick Linsey! Who knows where he got it from?

Dick Lehman says “The ‘startle value’ of Bartel’s comment was not wasted on me….as evidenced by the fact that I still remember it. With time, I have come to understand at least part of what he was attempting to teach. If I may paraphrase (or steal): Don’t just borrow someone else’s idea. If it is a borrowed idea, it still belongs to the owner. It still looks like it is his/her idea or property. Borrowing, thus defined, is plagiarism. If you are going to take someone else’s idea or be influenced by another’s inspiration, steal it – make it your own. If you take inspiration from another, have the integrity, courage and courtesy to develop the idea, to invest in it, to reinvent it, to make it more than it was.”
“Truly, we all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us (to steal an idea from photographer Arthur Lazar). Indebted indeed!

If, as some have suggested, there are no new ideas in the world of bonsai – only discoveries of new ways to develop or re-assemble the old ideas – then may we all discover much and be indebted more. Of all our artistic vices, “stealing” is among the least. A more telling character flaw is the laziness associated with “borrowing.” May we all pledge to borrow less and steal more.

The act that precipitates our theft of ideas and inspiration is often a public demonstration. It is an offering many make freely, not under duress (but probably also not without compensation). Any demonstrator will have decided that he is willing to share the information/technique/procedure, or he wouldn’t demonstrate it. And herein lies the heart of all good thievery – honest, generous, good-willed sharing.

Dick Lehman goes on to say… “I recall my first visit to the studio of Richard and Marj Peeler, long-time studio potters and educators in central Indiana. The occasion was a studio tour. At the time, I was a student and a vocational potter. I was, at best, inexperienced and impressionable. My connection to potters and clay was largely limited to the college studio and a few magazines. But even with such a limited exposure, I had a sense that, with respect to other potters, certain questions were off limits.

I learned in the course of my brief introduction to clay never to ask for a glaze recipe from a potter I didn’t know well. An equally important sub-rule was never to ask for a copper red recipe from anyone.

It was this peculiar sense of propriety that I took with me to the Peeler’s studio that day. So I was astonished when, just as we entered the Peeler showroom with a dozen admiring folks, one of the members of the group blurted out, “Oh, Mr. Peeler! What a beautiful copper red! Will you share the recipe with us?”

The entire group fell silent in an instant, not because we were all expecting the recipe, pencils in hand (although it was likely a question for which we all would have appreciated an answer). Rather, the room chilled out of a sense of embarrassment, out of anguish for this poor foolish hobbyist who had blundered into proprietary never-never land. I think each of us was silently sizing up the scope of this incredible faux pas, calculating how severe or how properly tactful Peeler’s rebuff would be to this obvious blunder. Onlookers nervously caught one another’s eyes, shaking heads in that minimal jerky way we do when an absolutely pitiable situation is before us. Peeler and the questioner seemed to be the only ones oblivious to the tension of the moment.

The silence was broken with a one-word answer: “Sure,” Peeler said. Then he added, “The recipe is in the notebook, under the phone. It is called….”
The silence continued, but now for a different reason. Finally someone gathered enough courage to ask, with an air of incredulity, “You mean you’ll share the recipe? Why?”
Peeler offered a lengthy but gentle lesson, one that addressed an eminently teachable moment. In a nutshell, he said: “It’s really not what you know, what recipe you possess, that is important. It is what you do with what you know. I can give each of you this recipe and it will work differently for each of you. A glaze recipe is a little like a recipe for a cake. You might try someone else’s recipe, and it might be a flop.”
“We are here to learn from each other. Marj and I will share recipes, what we do, and how we do it with anyone. There are no secrets, nor do there need to be. As we share, we will learn from each other, and we will all benefit.”

Impressionable as I was, this lesson is one that has sustained a prominent position in my memory, and one that has served me well. The confidence that Richard and Marj Peeler exhibited is a strength upon which we can all draw: to share with others always has its own rich reward. Moreover, such sharing and generosity are among the activities of life that ultimately make us most human.

Should we offer to tell everything we know at the slightest provocation? Propriety, at the very least, would suggest not. But to realize that we do indeed stand on the shoulders of all who came before us, and all who are beside us, should be a lesson in humility. At the same time, we should be encouraged to continue the tradition of openness, generosity and inclusiveness that has, in large part, been at the heart of the ceramics community and that points the way to the future (past copper red glaze reservations notwithstanding).”
May we all work tirelessly to create this nirvana in the bonsai community?

Graham Potter
Kaizen Bonsai

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