In 1892, deafblind Helen Keller was accused of plagiarizing Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies” with her short story, “The Frost King.”

After being acquitted, Mark Twain wrote her a letter of support.

mark twain

(Source: Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 2 of 2; Photo and excerpt, via.)

… Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism!

The kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism.

For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources …
— Mark Twain

As an entrepreneur and artist — forget that, as a human-being — I simply improve upon existing ideas just as how Facebook toppled Myspace and Myspace over Friendster and so forth.

There is, alas, no originality. We are amalgamations of everything we see, eat and are exposed to. Perhaps, I did add my tiny personal touch, but I am still a result of everything before me.

Twain continued in the letter …

In 1866 I read Dr. Holmes’s poems, in the Sandwich Islands. A year and a half later I stole his dedication, without knowing it, and used it to dedicate my “Innocents Abroad” with.

Then years afterward I was talking with Dr. Holmes about it. He was not an ignorant ass — no, not he; he was not a collection of decayed human turnips, like your “Plagiarism Court;”

And so when I said, “I know now where I stole it, but whom did you steal it from,” he said, “I don’t remember; I only know I stole it from somebody, because I have never originated anything altogether myself, nor met anyone who had.”

Copycat? Yeah … and I’m okay with that for we all are. We can’t unlearn something learned. So, I guess the question — if you’re interested — is whom you copied from.


Sincerely yours,

Lawrence Chan

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