Issue #94 of Nick Cave’s indispensable Red Hand Files tackles the thorny issue of plagiarism—and manages to draw an important distinction based not on action but on intent:
Theft is the engine of progress, and should be encouraged, even celebrated, provided the stolen idea has been advanced in some way. To advance an idea is to steal something from someone and make it so cool and covetable that someone then steals it from you. In this way, modern music progresses, collecting ideas, and mutating and transforming as it goes.
But if your intent is to somehow diminish the idea you’ve appropriated, well, look out for karma. Theft, Cave explains, necessitates that “you must honour the action, further the idea, or be damned.”
The inability of so many of us to recognize this distinction is in part, I think, because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re the creators—when, in fact, nothing we do is original. “What has been is what will be,” writes the Preacher in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, “and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”