🪶 Parts vs Wholes
One time a professor and a student actually exchanged views...on originality and the existence of copyright. You should've been there.
The professor holds the view that every work as a cohesive whole is original because of the uniqueness of the combination. Even though each individual piece may not be new, the blend can be seen as an original expression. This is how and why copyright, samples in music, patents, and all the laws surrounding them exist, which are an integral function to the economy.
The student holds the view that nothing is truly original, as every component of a work existed before its current form. For any physical creation you can go down to the atomic level. The idea of "combination originality" doesn't hold, as even combinations are built upon prior knowledge, experiences, or inspirations.
They both agree on the role and purpose of copyright but disagree on how it can be practical in a digital age.
Both hold a view. Both exchange the view. Now they steelman.
The student goes on. While individual elements may not be unique, the manner and context in which they are combined create a new meaning that wasn't present before. This is why copyright and the concept of intellectual property is foundational to an economy incentivized to build new things, and pursue new domains of knowledge.
The professor goes on. Could the concept of true originality be an illusion? Definitely. If we consider the vast history of human civilization, it becomes evident that most works draw from existing materials, ideas, or concepts in some way. Everything we produce is in some way a remix of what came before. However, this perspective does not negate the importance of copyright. It safeguards the value and integrity of one's contribution to human creativity.
The First Principles of Parts
Every physical object is ultimately made up of atoms, the basic units of matter. They combine in countless ways to form molecules, compounds, and subsequently, larger structures and entities.
If every physical creation, from a painting to a sculpture, is reduced to its atomic components, then nothing is technically unique. This is not pragmatic for a functioning economy that values creation, but not to be overlooked.
One might find it intriguing to consider the implications of copyright at the atomic level. Yet copyright laws don't—and arguably can't—apply to the foundational building blocks of matter. At least they can't right now.
In the digital realm, information = bits. These bits combine to form bytes, and sequences of bytes represent more complex information structures.
Every digital creation, from a software program to digital art is a configuration of bits. A meme and a string of binary digits are both combinations of 0s and 1s. At their core, neither is inherently more original than the other.
In the world of bits we're confronted with the question: What truly constitutes originality when the foundational elements are so uniform?
Yet our legal and ethical systems still draw distinctions. They do not recognize the bits and bytes, but rather the intent and design displayed.