The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Plagiarism and creativity: original thinker - or derivative copyist?

Is your child creatively gifted? Does your child have new ideas? Fresh conceptions? Original viewpoints? If so, your child could grow into a genius. This presents great promise, but great danger too. You see, it is most likely that your child is surrounded by people who do not think in original ways. The children your child goes to school with may look on his or her ideas acquisitively. The adults your child comes into contact with, may not be paying rapt attention to your child out of altruism, but out of acquisitiveness: the desire to "adopt" an idea that drops from the lips of your child.

Why do I say this? Well, it was my experience in school that whenever I did anything original, whether it be an artwork, a story or a creative idea of any kind, that others would imitate me, pretty quickly. It was disheartening to see echoes of my work in others. Worse still, however, was to see my childhood work, as a child artist, made into advertisements years later. Presumably my fellow students, or others who had seen or heard about the works, had used my ideas later, for personal, professional and monetary gain, claiming them to be their own. It was sickening to see. Why am I sure that the origin of the advertisements lay in knowledge of my works? Simple: the idea, and composition of the images were the same in every significant way. I don't believe in coincidence in matters of art. There is an infinity of possible imagery. If someone reproduces all distinct elements of your work, they have not done so by some independent miracle. They have stolen your work.

A British artist has even built his reputation on ideas lifted directly from an unguarded conversation I had, while at Cambridge. We were at the same college. This man has become famous on the basis of stolen ideas: he is, in effect, an artistic fraud. Such a matter is very difficult to pursue. He would, of course, deny the conversation in question - and pursuing it is a very expensive course of action, legal fees being what they are.

So what should the parent of a creative child do, if they wish to prevent the sorry circumstances above from becoming their life story. Firstly, advise them to be circumspect as to whom they discuss their ideas with. Nothing is more easily stolen than an idea. It seems sad to urge them to such caution, in their young and supposedly free lives - but people have long memories - and the people they share their childhoods with can easily profit later in life from the ideas they acquired from your child.

I cannot think of anyone at my school who was not essentially derivative in outlook. Much the same can be said for most of the people of Cambridge University. Therefore caution is to be advised at all stages of your child's education. Don't think that the academic staff at University won't find "inspiration" in your child's thoughts either - for that type of plagiarism happened to me too.

(For posts on Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, a scientific child prodigy, and his gifted brothers, go to: )

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 3:28 PM 


Blogger Marsha Johnson said...

Amazing, I have lived what you have described here but not on such a grand scale. I have often told myself that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Ironically, this idea falls flat! I often have the need to share my ideas/projects and collaborate with others, but I think the caution you impart is useful and necessary. What a waste that so many people around us do not dare to express their individuality and instead choose to copy someone else! Surely, this is a consequence of our public school system! So sad! Also, a piece by the writer of *A Course in Miracles* (Marianne Williamson) talks about another feeling that comes up for me here which reads something like, "...Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure..." This was quoted by Nelson Mandela. So interesting...

8:51 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks Marsha for your comment.

Unfortunately, I think plagiarism is the common experience of all creative people - if they are aware of it. Creativity is the rarest gift and, sadly, too many highly competitive people think they can further their own careers by stealing ideas and works, from others. From what I hear, some people make a career of it. They even convince themselves that knowing how to steal is a "talent". The advertising industry is a prime culprit and should regulate itself better. Some creative directors and similarly titled people, are not creative at all. They make a good living out of depriving other people of theirs. I wish you luck in getting credit for your creative work: a right that should be unchallenged for all creative individuals everywhere.

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have faced that dilemma too. I come up with SO MANY ideas that its difficult to even make sure they all get written down, sketched, composed, etc. let alone used. I would need a whole town to accomplish all the things I think up. There is no way that I can, within my lifetime, EVER use every single idea I come up with. Only a tiny fraction of my zillions of ideas will ever ammount to anything.

And whats worse is that I come up with better ideas as I go along. The ideas that I DID record a few years ago have become worthless to me. I dont have the time to go through and polish old works, because of the new works that are pouring out of me.

I talk to hundreds of people online - too many to even keep up with and I have found myself worrying many times that someone might steal my ideas...

But you know what? If any of them do that then I, the originator will easily put out something so much better that whatever derivative work they created would lose value beside it.

And I have worried at least as much if not more about HOW I will EVER deliver all these ideas to the rest of humanity... I want to help them, I want to improve the world, but how the heck do I as one person deliver all these ideas to all the people...

Mass imitation may be the only way.

And you know what? I really NEED feedback on these things - and a wide variety of feedback. The more feedback I get, the better my ideas become. To restrict the number of people giving feedback, or to have to take time building up trust in each and every person... well both of those would hurt me. One will cause me to have ideas of lower quality, and the other will reduce the ammount of time in which I have ideas, thereby reducing the overall number of ideas...

I think the real issue (at least for me) when it comes to worrying about people stealing my ideas is that I want to be able to liberate myself financially USING my own ideas. I want to be able to fund projects and donate to charities. To do that, I only need ONE idea that I have kept secret.

And I think in order to choose that one idea, I have to let hundreds of others go - otherwise, without feedback from a wide variety of others telling me "That has already been invented" or "this wont work" I wont get a good solid sense of the difference between a valuable idea and an idea that will not make me any money or will not serve as a contribution.

Another thought is that these people who are stealing your and your sons ideas may not even realize that that is what they are doing. Neitche was reported to have accidentally stolen an entire short story, pretty much word for word. The story goes that he spontaneously remembered it from when he was nine years old but did not realize he was remembering it. It may be that the things that you and your son do lodge in people's memories the same way. This is my guess because I doubt that most normal people would consciously remember something that they saw in childhood well enough to CONSCIOUSLY re-create it as adults. They may actually be completely unaware that they are stealing.

6:38 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Thanks for your perspective, as another creative person, on the situation.

Being faced with the phenomenon of derivativeness, my response has been different. I have learnt to be cautious in the expression of ideas in the presence of others, before the ideas are in the form of something harder to steal - like an entire book, or a work of art or something concrete. At that point, I am willing to show them.

My son, Ainan, is always bubbling with ideas, in public, and has yet to learn any caution.

What I have found from those who derive works from ideas I came up with is that they always produce something much less than what I had envisaged for the idea in question. Not being the originator of the idea, they don't fully understand it and the derivative work created is always somehow smaller than what I had intended. That having been said, they spoil the surprise that the original work would have produced, by making something related.

Your way of coping shows a certain strength which is difficult to emulate: that letting go is hard for many creative people to do, since most creative people are very attached to their creative ideas - they are, in a sense, a part of the person who created them.

I worry about the financial aspect too...there is a need to generate funds from one idea to feed the others. I think you will find that when you have more money, you will be able to realize more of your ideas. When you have a lot of money, you will be able to realize ALL of your ideas. At that point, I think, you will not allow anyone to be derivative of you. You see, with generous funding you can hire people to help you realize your ideas. It might be a future to look forward to...I wish you luck on that.

As for the matter of unconsciously stealing my work...I had not considered the possibility, at all - but you may be right. What is odd is that in several cases the "unconscious" stealing led to identical compositions.

The more recent case of someone at Cambridge University being derivative is probably conscious, since the time gap between origination and copying was not too long...just a few years. The other cases were much longer.

Anyway, thanks for your view on the issue: it provides a fresh look at the issue that I had not considered myself.

Feel free to come by here again.

Kind regards

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think you will find that when you have more money, you will be able to realize more of your ideas. When you have a lot of money, you will be able to realize ALL of your ideas. At that point, I think, you will not allow anyone to be derivative of you. You see, with generous funding you can hire people to help you realize your ideas. It might be a future to look forward to...I wish you luck on that."

Thanks, I didnt see that possibility. That was me by the way.

- Kathy

4:55 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Good to know it was you!

I hope you take the advice too: nurture your ideas, cherish them...and wait until you are able to realize them, due to better funding, than just throwing them away.

Best wishes with everything.

6:23 PM  

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