From dogs to copyrights

I came across this story on twitter today. It’s a beautiful, short, touching story.

Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle. I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home. As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.

The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker ‘s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away. The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s Death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.

Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, ”I know why.” Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation. It has changed the way I try and live.

He said,”People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life — like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?” The Six-year-old continued, ”Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”

I wanted to share it, and since I like attributing the sources for interesting stories I find online and giving credit where it’s due, I wanted to find who originally wrote it so that I could link to it. After a quick Google search, I still couldn’t find where this story originated. It’s been shared and blogged by lots of people in lots of places, but everybody just heard it from someone else they know. Then I started wondering if this is a real story or if it’s fictional, or if it’s a story that evolved every time it got re-told and now it isn’t much like the real event that it’s about, it’s just the best Story about the event.

Sometimes it’s important for a story to be accurate, because we wouldn’t want to be ignorant enough to believe that Hitler was a nice guy or something. But most times the stories we tell each other are just containers for a feeling, an emotion or an idea. I can explain an idea to you, but it can’t form as deep a root in your mind as when I tell you a story that makes you think it yourself. I can tell you how I feel, but you won’t really feel it as much as when I share the story or experience that made me feel that way with you. Just as we need words to communicate simpler things, we need stories to communicate these things that are harder to articulate. And so these stories evolve. The events are altered and the characters are changed to make the feeling clearer. If you look at it objectively, these stories are exaggerated, distorted and sensationalised but as we go on telling these stories to each other, only the ones that best convey the feelings attached survive in our collective memory. It’s like a form of Natural Selection.

And then I remembered this article I read a while ago on whether we can apply the ideology of Open Source to fiction. It’s a thought provoking article, and beautifully written. You should read it if you have the time, but for now I’m going to paste the important part here.

Ideas–stories–can enjoy a freedom that physical things never can . Imagine: someone’s grandmother tells a cautionary tale, it gets passed around the playground, it winds up in a book of urban legends, maybe one day it even makes blockbuster status at the box offices.  We gossip.  We embellish.  We lie.  We daydream.  Stories are being born all the time, and some of them even make it to paper.   The point is, stories live, and they can live forever.   Like all living things, they emerge organically.  They grow.  They evolve.  They are used.  They are molded.  They share their existence with the other living things on the globe.  They make change and are changed in return.

But as modern writers, we’ve accepted a limited lifespan for stories.   They begin and end between the covers of books.  At least until long after we are dead.

And I want more.

I want my stories to live.

When I’m done with a story, I don’t want it to die a quiet death–not if it doesn’t have to. I don’t even want it to be stuffed and preserved forever behind a pane of glass where people ogle at it all day long.  I don’t want a mandatory DNR stapled to its chest the moment it leaves my hands.

I don’t want this to happen to my stories.

And I won’t let it.


Up until now, every time I had an idea about a story to write, I would wonder where it came from and what inspired it. Every time I would get an idea for a story while reading a book or watching a movie, I would guiltily feel like it’s stolen and I wouldn’t pursue it much further. I’ve read sentences that describe situations so perfectly that I remember them word for word. I wouldn’t think it’s okay to use them in something that I wrote because even though it’s just a short string of words, someone else put them together before I did . Sentences like “her words hung in the air like too ripe fruit.” Every time I make a song that sounds nice I spend at least five minutes thinking if I’ve sub-consciously stolen it from somewhere else.

An interesting point is, I never felt this way when taking segments of code, or even entire modules of software and using them as a part of something I make. It’s strange that our moral view on borrowing ideas changes so drastically from software to literature. But I think it’s wrong to feel guilty about it. I think, leaving the legal issues of copyright aside, it’s okay to take something you come across and do what you want with it. Even if you take a song and only change a few lines because it means more to you that way. Even if you’re writing an alternate ending to a popular story. You should sing it and write it and share it and put it on the internet. You should be able to. Fuck the legalities. Since when did legal mean right and illegal mean wrong anyway? Hitler didn’t break any laws in Germany in his time right?* So yeah, since everything we ever make is built on something borrowed anyway, take what you want and use it as you please.


*I don’t know why I was thinking of Hitler so much tonight.

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