Mark Twain didn’t think that plagiarism was necessarily wrong. He thought rather that creativity is the ability to reproduce and synthesize other ideas. What interests me is the truth of that statement in philosophy. One of my lecturers once told me that whenever a student of his comes to him and says “I have this brilliant theory, nobody has ever thought of it before”, he always replies “Then forget about it and find a different idea”.
I think in philosophy particularly the statement that there are no truly new ideas is true. Discourse progresses, of course. But the way in which it progresses is by building on top of the old ideas. An idea is never really new, rather, it is just a different blend of old ideas. If you mix cartesian dualism with pantheism you get panpsychism (that is of course a very crude example).
Twain was clear in his thoughts on plagiarism.
The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of allhuman utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing.
We can see this everywhere. In literature: Frankenstein is a synthesis of Goethe’s Faust, the myth of Prometheus, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. In film: Avatar is a retelling of Pocahontas which probably was a retelling of something else, but I don’t have the resources right now to do the research. In the tech industry it is even more clear, if you consider what all phones looked like in the prehistoric times before iPhones, and what happened after.
Of course though, there is straight forward plagiarism. If I didn’t note that Mark Twain wrote the quote above, I’d be plagiarizing. But on the other hand, none of the ideas I wrote here are really new.
There is a great article about that Mark Twain quote at Brain Pickings