Are Plagiarizing Animals Creative?

from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD

Posted 6/1/09 | Updated 5/6/23

Are animals creative? Some would argue that the answer is yes, and in fact, there is even a framework for animal creativity (J. C. Kaufman & A. B. Kaufman, 2004).

Let's take the satin bowerbird as an example. The males of the species do a nifty, complicated dance to attract the females. They puff out their feathers, they extend their wings, and they run around and make a funny buzzing sound (all in the name of love). Female satin bowerbirds prefer those males who provide the best show (Borgia, 1985).

Sometimes, however, these dances can startle the females, making them less likely to mate (which somehow makes sense; try screaming "Boo!" during an intimate moment and see where that gets you). What recent research has shown is that male satin bowerbirds respond to startling their intended mates by reducing the intensity of their dances in the future (Patricelli, Coleman, & Borgia, 2006). So not only do these guys dance and put on a show, but they know enough to tone it down if they're not getting the right response. Teenage boys should be so lucky.

How about this one: John Cage was a composer who specialized in unorthodox compositions, finding music in a wide variety of sounds. One of his pieces was called 4'33". The piece consisted of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence or, as Cage called it, "unintentional sound."

The pianist would walk out onto stage, open the piano, and simply sit for exactly four minutes and 33 seconds. Cage's idea behind this piece was that there is music all around us and we need to reject our preconceived notions about what music is (Cage, 1961; Hamm, 1980).

Was Cage creative? Could silence be a creative piece of music? In 2002, composer Mike Batt's classical rock band, The Planets, released an EP with a song on it called "One Minute Silence," which is exactly what it sounds like. Cage's estate sued for plagiarism. Batt settled out of court for a six-figure amount (CNN.com, 2002).

Yet, consider this other lawsuit: Stu Silverstein compiled 122 uncollected poems of Dorothy Parker and published them as an edited volume. Penguin Books had earlier negotiated unsuccessfully to publish Silverstein's compilation as part of their collection of complete Dorothy Parker poems.

Two years after Silverstein's book appeared, Penguin included the exact same 122 poems (no more, no less) in their collection in an uncollected poems section. Silverstein sued, noting that they included poems that he found embedded in letters and that Penguin used the same titles he gave untitled poems.

Astoundingly, Penguin won — a judge ruled that a copyright can be claimed only for a creative contribution, and Silverstein's work as compiler and editor was not specifically creative but rather simply hard work. As a side note, the court had to legally define a poem and ended up with "poetry consists of poems, but not all poems are poetry" (S. Leith, 2007). Wow.

©2009 James C. Kaufman. All rights reserved.

Creativity 101

This series is based on "Defining Creativity" from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD. Excerpts reprinted with permission of Springer Publishing Company www.springerpub.com.

James C. Kaufman is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut. ...