What Qualifies as an Original Idea?

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants. – Isaac Newton*

95% of the content on this blog is knowledge I have learned from someone else. It’s very rare to come up with an idea that has no inspiration from existing knowledge. That said, I’ve endeavored to put my own spin on every idea I post, use my own words, and offer my own insights. Keeping that in mind, today we’ll discuss what makes an idea original and who can claim ownership of an idea.

Legality

Let’s get this one out of the way. You can’t legally copyright an idea or concept, only your own expression of the idea. If you draw a picture of a tree, you own the drawing itself. However, anyone else can draw the same tree, and you can’t own the idea of drawing trees in general. Similarly, you can publish a blog explaining a particular drill, but another blog is free to publish an entry explaining a similar drill (provided they use their own words and illustrations). Legally speaking, repeating martial arts knowledge you learned is legal, as long as it’s in your own words.

Originality

So legally you can write anything you want as long as the words are original, but when is the idea itself original?

If you take an existing cookie recipe and replace 1 egg with chia seeds does that make the recipe yours? Even if 95% of the ingredients were from an existing recipe does changing one make it original? You’ve turned “cookies” into “low saturated fat cookies,” is that a brand new recipe? Coming up with new training drills is the same.

If I take a boxing drill and add a kick to it to make a kickboxing drill, is it a new drill? It has a different ingredient and a different application even if most of the drill is the same.

Monetary

Keeping the cookie metaphor going because I’m hungry and writing this on my lunch break, if you pay for a cooking class and years later get paid to teach your own cooking class, do you owe something to the teacher of your old class?

I studied at a martial arts school where I paid tuition, was taught well, and now have marketable knowledge. Some of what I learned there is in this blog, where I could potentially make money off of ad revenue (hint: read often, share with friends). Is it ethical to make money off “someone else’s” knowledge?

Yes! They did it first!

My instructors learned from someone else, and they paid to do so. Knowledge has to be passed down to continue, and in a society where money is a thing that exists, that’s just an inevitable factor in the exchange of useful knowledge.

Royalties

Expanding on that, do you owe something financially to someone you learned from? Legally? Probably not (not a lawyer, don’t ask me for legal advice) unless you’re in some type of franchise agreement. Ethically? We’re getting into opinions here. I will gladly tell anyone who asks me where I trained and encourage anyone in the area to check those schools out. However, if I start making ad revenue on this blog I feel no ethical obligation to mail a royalty check to all the schools I’ve trained at.

The tradition of martial arts does include an almost familial (or sometimes cult-like) level of loyalty, but remember it’s a school first. Do you owe royalties to your college every time you use something you learned in class at your job? You exchanged money for knowledge, you didn’t license out that knowledge on a per-usage basis. To put it another way, you bought knowledge, you didn’t rent it.

You Don’t Own Ideas

It works both ways – my instructors didn’t own the concepts they taught me, and I don’t own the concepts I write about. Whether I came up with an idea 100% on my own, or tweaked an idea to use it in a slightly different way, anyone reading this is free to use that knowledge at their own schools. Just like basic school subjects, no one owns math or the ability to read. I do, however, own the silly cartoon illustrations on this site.

*This quote, most commonly attributed to Newton, was actually a paraphrase of French Philosopher Bernard of Chartres hundreds of years earlier. Yes I intentionally opened an article on the originality of ideas with a misattributed quote. Irony.

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