Original and unique content

Original and unique content! This is a phrase that I type often, usually in a mixture of frustration and despair, in the internet forums I frequent. Sometimes, threads end up as an interesting, somewhat weird and ultimately futile, discourse on the definitions of the words original and unique, as site owners and bloggers claim that their sites and blogs are original and unique when they clearly are not. There always existed blatant plagiarism, unconscious but unconscionable borrowing or repetition, and perhaps even moments of serendipity when two great minds think alike and come up with the exact same ideas and expressions, but the internet has made the mundane copying and pasting (and its detection) much easier.

According to the Concise OED (10th ed, revised)

Original: adj. 1) existing from the beginning; first or earliest. 2) produced first-hand; not a copy. 3) inventive or novel. n. 1) the earliest form of something, from which copies can be made. 2) an eccentric or unusual person.

Unique: adj. being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.

Those definitions are quite clear. Original and unique content must be the thing that exists first, and the only one of its kind. Many people who claim to create original and unique content are indeed original, but rather unfortunately in the sense of being eccentric or unusual.

Yet there are those who persist to claim that, while (all) parts are copied, the site or the blog as a whole is original and unique. According to this argument, then, the sum of copied content can make an original and unique site or blog, and adds value. Does it? If I’m getting this right, these people are admitting to running a digital chopshop. Would anyone want to purchase something at or rely on a piece of information from a dodgy digital chopshop? Probably not.

One line of argument favoured by some people is that nothing is exactly the same, even if all of the text were copied, therefore their sites and blogs are unique. Or put it another way: repackaging means uniqueness. This basically means almost everything on the net is unique: a difference of 1px somewhere would mean that it’s unique. This is why the first bit of the OED definition for unique is relevant: being the only one of its kind, not a variant of an existing thing.

Another argument is that nothing in the world is truly original. In other words, it’s unfair to characterize something as unoriginal because nothing is ever original. We’re all indebted to our predecessors and contemporaries, hence we cannot be original. That is true: many aspire to be, and a few delude themselves to be, in the same league as Leonardo or Einstein, but such people endowed with genius are extremely rare, and even then they were not operating in a vacuum. However, there is a difference between ideas and expression. Ideas do not exist in intellectual vacuum, however, it’s possible to express the same ideas in different ways. Not everyone is or can be expected to reach the heights of Shakespeare or Milton, but many people have in themselves the ability to express what they think.

Indeed, the main thrust of the argument, the idea, presented here is neither original nor unique. However, the concrete expressions of that idea are original and unique: at least I haven’t copied anything from elsewhere except for the OED definitions, though I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that some turns of phrases may derive from something I have heard or read somewhere.

Making sites or blogs and writing content is about being an author, not a mechanical copyist. Dusting off my copy of Chambers Murray, the Latin word auctor has a connotation of progenitor or originator and a connection to auctoritas. Being an author is being original, and by extension, being an authority on that issue. It is also about claiming authorial responsibility: why would people read something that the author does not care about?

It may be naivety or foolishness, but I believe in the internet’s potential to act as a medium of an enlightenment movement in this century. Not only are more materials much more easily accessible, it is much easier to produce materials. Dare to think, and dare to write, as well as dare to know: perhaps these are the challenges of the early 21st century.