When a person, still wet behind the years, yet who probably believes himself to be the greatest writer-to-be of the 21st century, is worried that a highly respected, very senior author could steal his ideas, it turns the whole concept of copyright and plagiarism upside down. A creative writer could always have a few hundred ideas bursting to come out of his mind, and the same ideas could be in the minds of many. I would feel really honoured if another writer used my ideas to create a better work of art.
However, the question arises, if an idea could be copyrighted.
"In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, process, system method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodies in such work." (section 102, US Copyright Act.) In Australia, copyright protects the original expression of ideas, and not the ideas themselves. In UK "Intellectual property is something unique that you physically create - an idea alone is not intellectual property".
It would be nearly impossible to trace the origin of ideas. That is probably why Isaac Newton had said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants". There are people in the West who believe that Aristotle's logic and Euclid's geometry are original ideas. But this has been disputed in the East. Babylonians and Egyptians were aware of geometry and trigonometry long before the Greeks. While in India, there is evidence that during the Indus Civilization they had used circle-drawing instruments as early as 2500 BCE.
David Hume explained that "when we analyse our thoughts we can reduce them to simple ideas copied from previous feelings or sentiments....Ideas come from sensations". Since all sensations and feelings would be common to most people they probably would get the same ideas.
Had Thomas Robert Malthus been alive when Alfred Russel Wallace published his paper on Natural Selection, or when Charles Darwin published his 'Origin of Species', would Malthus have taken them to courts claiming they have stolen his idea? Both of them may have been influenced by Malthus, but could we say they copied his idea? It would not be possible to draw lines between, plagiarism, being influenced by another's ideas, or developing an idea independent of all previous such ideas.
Isaac Assimov quotes from Thomas H. Huxley who had exclaimed after reading 'On the Origin of Species', "How stupid of me not to have thought of this." Assimov explains, "The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring."
The concept of rebirth, Karma and Anathma had been around long before Buddha and Mahavira. Ficus religiosa (Asvatha or the Bo tree) was venerated at least about two thousand years before the birth of Buddha. Among mankind, who was the first man to have got an idea of a God, and then about an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent monotheistic God, and could this person claim copyright?
There are over 300 versions of Ramayana. We would never know if Rama, Sita and Ravana were real persons, or if they had been the products of a creative genius, and who this genius could have been. But there has been no blame placed on any of the creators of different Ramayana versions for stealing the work of another. Which came first, Dasharata Jataka, Ramayana by Valmiki or Pauma Charya by Vimala Suri? When and where was the origin of all the Jataka stories, or closer home, who created Mahadenamutta or Andare?
There have always been accusations of the theft of ideas or creative works. Sometimes manuscripts get stolen, and are later published by others, and the owner of the original work is left helpless. There have been instances where films and 'tele-dramas' have been copied from works of reputed authors, without any acknowledgement or compensation.
When E.T. was produced in 1982, Satyajit Ray is reported to have said that it would "not have been possible without my script of 'The Alien' being available throughout America in mimeographed copies." Arthur C. Clarke too had mentioned striking similarities of E. T. with The Alien. Ray had been working on The Alien in the early 60s and had discussed the story with Arthur Clarke in 1964, the script was written in 1967 and it had been taken to Hollywood in 1967, to Columbia Pictures but never produced. Steven Spielberg denied copying Ray's script. Indian newspapers still continue to bring up this issue.
Shakespeare has been accused of borrowing or copying from stories created by earlier writers. A poem 'Romeus and Juliet' had been written in 1562 by Arthur Brooks. Luigi da Porto had written 'Newly Found Story of Two Noble Lovers' in 1531, and before him Masuccio Salernitano (born Tommaso Guardati) wrote a short story, 'Mariotto and Ganozza'. Archaeologists had found two skeletons of a man and a woman, who had died young, buried over 5000 years ago, only 25 miles from Verona. But It was Shakespeare who captured the whole world with his creation based on the story.
Anyway since no one has found a single original manuscript written in Shakespeare's own hand, the controversy continues about who wrote these plays, says Mark Anderson in 'Shakespeare by Another Name'.
There is really "nothing new under the sun", and even this statement is as old as history. There is nothing we can claim as our own, as our original ideas, which no one has ever thought of, before us.