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Standing on the Shoulders of Others

Plagiarism is such an ugly word. Maybe call it “unattributed borrowing.”

Paraphrasing Sir Issac Newton (of Apple-and-Gravity fame) “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of others.” As with much in the world, our hobby relies on the exchange of ideas. We seldom truly “invent” something so much as adapt or improve what somebody else has already developed.

Like Minds
Like minds think alike, that’s for sure. Sometimes a clever idea isn’t as unique as we think it was when we first conceived it. I know that’s been the case for me. For example:
Miyozaki Land: I have several of Sankei’s N-scale models depicting houses in various Hiyao Miyozaki movies (you know: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Ponyo, and so on) and for a long time one of my ambitions was a “Miyazaki Land” theme park module (or two.) Am I the only one to have such an idea? Nope.
45-Degree Turns: To counteract the 45-degree rotation that results from my Tight Corner Wye, I was contemplating a 45-degree module. Unique? Nope.
Odd-Length Modules: I have several modules—cityscapes, countrysides, etc—with scenery on half-inch MDF such that the track passes through the scene over viaducts. While there’s no reason why such modules couldn’t just abut regular modules, I thought that scenically, some “vertical transition” would be nice... but even a single module would be too big (given that I would need “bookends") so a thought occurred to me: why not make a 40% and 60% pair of modules? Again, not original.
(... And a few more I won’t elaborate here.) The point is that these aren’t original. Sure, I (ahem) “thought” of them. But so did others. Probably lots of others. I’ll likely still do them when time permits.
But if I write about them, I’ll be sure to give a nod to those other like-minded hobbyists.

(And, yes: sometimes, there’s a certain amount of like-mindedness, where two folks unwittingly come up with the same idea completely independently. This happens a fair amount. And it’s all goodness.)

But sometimes people make claims about (or by omission, don’t disclaim) something that they really saw elsewhere. Working with a bunch of academic types as I do, this form of unattributed borrowing rankles me. It’s just uncouth—really uncool—to say you came up with something (or lead others to think so) when somebody else actually did... Both in academic circles, and in the tech industry, such intellectual theft is taken quite seriously, and has tremendous consequences for the transgressor. (But that’s another subject, off topic.)

Sensitive to this, I’ve made a point of citing sources as a matter of course. At work, if one of the folks on my team (or anybody, really) has an idea that I need to promote, I label it such: “Bob’s idea of doing so-and-so...” That’s just professional courtesy. In the long run, I don’t look good taking credit for somebody else’s idea; I do look good for assembling a team of bright people who get things done.

That carries over to the hobby, too. I’ve made a point of citing—and linking to—sources, and make no bones about steering readers to them. The hobby truly benefits from the sharing and exchange of ideas, and it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due. Most of us are not “in it for the money” so the thank you the courtesy of a citation implies carries a lot of weight.

My little, um, essay, here, is motivated by a reader (thank you, Sam N.) asking whether I had copied another hobbyist’s recipe for Imitating Kato Ballast, since the pictures were the same.

For the record: no.

I cannot rule out that we both developed similar recipes (we differ only in the ratio of one component of commercially available products, and arriving at such is no major intellectual undertaking.) I was unaware of Eddie Stavleu’s post until it was called to my attention just now. From what I could determine, his post was made earlier this year (early February 2015.)

The matter of the photograph is altogether different. The photograph is, without question, mine, as are all the photographs on my page. I have the high resolution original, the containers of ballast (the LHS, Just Trains, is stone’s throw away in Concord, California) and I probably still have the MDF board (note the writing and glue in the lower right.) So there can be no dispute of origin here. Determining the relationship of the photograph and the idea I leave to the reader.

Pedigree and attribution aside, though, I’m glad the idea is out there. It makes the hobby better (even if for no other reason than that a bunch of us, from opposite sides of the Pacific, can have consistently-ballasted T-trak modules.)

That said, as we stand on the shoulders of others, let’s keep giving credit where credit is due. It’s just the cool thing to do.