September 7, 2012

When Is It Okay To Steal An Idea?

Zocalo Public Square recently hosted a discussion on “Idea Theft” and asked me to participate.


Up for Discussion

Theft Is In the Eye Of the Beholder

When Is It OK For Someone in Your Field To ‘Steal’ an Idea?


Did Samsung violate Apple’s intellectual property rights by making a phone with a pinchable screen? Should one-click online ordering be an idea owned by one corporation? Should the day come when Mickey Mouse belongs to everyone? Can Chinese companies make shoes featuring a swoosh? At what point would our paraphrasing of someone else’s paraphrasing of what someone else said amount to plagiarism?

Our culture, our laws and our technologies are all grappling these days with the meaning of intellectual property and the boundaries between improving upon past innovations, and misappropriating them. In advance of the Zócalo event “Does Imitation Breed Innovation?” we asked five artistic minds to ponder when it’s OK for someone to steal an idea.

The case for artistic celibacy

Most of us would never steal an object…but the issue is not so simple or clear when we’re talking about something as intangible as an idea, especially in art. If someone were to copy an image from the Internet and put their name on it, we’d all call that stealing. But what if someone creates an image that uses a similar look, style, technique or subject matter to mine…would that be stealing? And what if upon investigation I found that the other artist’s work had pre-dated mine or that they were unaware of my work?

This has happened to me several times. Sometimes the work had been developed in parallel, with each of us unaware of the other’s work. Sometimes the other person’s work had pre-dated mine, and sometimes people loved my idea and were simply imitating it. All art is evolutionary, some say, built upon the work that comes before.

Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I cannot determine the difference between stealing, copying, imitating, working in parallel or building upon another’s work. Most importantly, I shouldn’t care! As an artist I need to stay focused on what I am doing and not what others are doing. Not only would that be a waste of time, it would take energy and focus away from my art. My job as an artist is to create as uniquely as possible and I personally do not wish to build upon the work of others.

To facilitate seeing uniquely, I have been practicing “Photographic Celibacy” for the last five years. It is the practice of not looking at other photographers’ work. I do this to minimize the influence others have on my art and to reduce my temptation to “copy” them. I personally find the unconscious inclination to imitate to be destructive to the creative process.

Cole Thompson is a black-and-white fine art photographer living on a small ranch in Northern Colorado. He began creating at age 14 and has always worked in black and white. He is often asked, “Why black and white?” His answer: “I think it’s because I grew up in a black-and-white world. Television, movies and the news were all in black and white. My heroes were in black and white and even the nation was segregated into black and white. My images are an extension of the world in which I grew up.”


How can you not copy a classic drink?

It’s never acceptable to take from another and claim it as your own, although in the tight-knit fraternity of cocktail mixing, ideas and past traditions are widely celebrated and emulated.

Today it is en vogue to be a bartender. However, for a long time bartending was not considered to be a professional end goal. In fact we had been considered downright disreputable. That’s one reason we celebrate those who came before us, who taught us everything we know and inspire us to be better and question the received wisdom. This questioning spawns conversation or variations. The same thing is done in literature, for example when James Joyce wrote Ulysses he wasn’t stealing from the Odyssey but rather having a conversation with Homer.

We too are storytellers but with drinks. When we make a variation of a classic and don’t tell the story behind the drink we rob our guests of a rich and enduring connection that they can in turn share with others. I am no different than you when I walk into a bar. When it is a bar manned by someone I like and respect, I am filled with an excitement that borders on mania. I feel the same way every time I make a drink I love, I can’t help but tell the story of that drink and when I slide it over to my guest in my mind there is diffused lighting and Teddy Pendergrass playing because that is love.

Zahra Bates is head bartender at Providence Restaurant.


True stealing is better than borrowing

It depends what’s meant by the word “steal.” It’s never OK for someone to literally steal something, however the question usually isn’t one to take literally. An idea itself isn’t what’s valuable. It’s how the idea is implemented that creates value.

In Web design, as in any industry with a creative component, people copy each other’s ideas all the time. Sometimes these ideas have become so much a part of the standard or the convention that not using them would lead to a less effective design. For example, most people expect to arrive at a website and find a list of links across the top or down the side that serves as global navigation. On the other hand, exactly how one designer crafts a navigation bar isn’t part of that convention.

There’s a famous quote attributed variously to Picasso, Stravinsky and others, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” which is often misunderstood, but applies well to this question. When you borrow something, it’s not yours. You plan to give it back. When you steal something, you make it yours. It’s this notion of making it yours that’s the important part of the quote.

The proper way to steal an idea in design or any industry is to make it your own. Take it apart. Understand what makes it a good idea. Assimilate it and internalize it. Mix it with all the other ideas within you. Something new will arise from the combination of the ideas within and the idea you’ve stolen.

That new idea may recognizably come from the idea you’ve stolen, but it won’t be the same. It will be improved. It will be different. It will be something of your own. When you steal ideas in this way you add to them and contribute to your industry. If all you do is copy them outright you’ve only taken something that doesn’t belong to you.

Steven Bradley is a web designer and WordPress developer who moved to Boulder, Colorado to be near the mountains. He blogs at Vanseo Design and owns and operates a small business forumhelping people learn how to run and market their business more effectively.


Fashion, the ultimate minefield

I work as a professional fashion illustrator. I am also an enthusiastic, non-professional fashion blogger. Of these occupations, illustration is more clearly governed by law when it comes to intellectual property. Although I’ve discovered that explaining the nuances of copyright to clients unfamiliar with the concept is so confusing in the digital age, the conversation can be counterproductive to developing relationships and doing business. This means that my business is often run more on intuition and good faith than on contract. As an illustrator who works in the fashion industry, my laissez-faire approach to enforcing my own copyright would horrify illustrators who work in traditional publishing. But, with my limited time on Earth, I’d rather draw than practice the law.

Fashion blogging is a virtual Canal Street of grey-market intellectual property violation. A lot of this is lazy blogging—just appropriating other people’s creations. Then there are a few clever bloggers who are combining images and ideas in startling new ways, creating a fascinating and viral universal cultural pulse.

When is it not OK to take an idea? That may be the more interesting question. I believe the answer relates to power dynamics. When a wealthy corporation profits off the idea of an independent creative, something feels unjust about that. But if a teenager somewhere throws an appropriated image up on their Tumblr, logging it into the stream of consciousness of modern youth, throwing the book at them just seems petty… and old-fashioned.

Danielle Meder is a fashion illustrator. She blogs at Final Fashion.


Ideas can’t be locked up

A great artist never borrows; he steals.” Variations on this insinuatingly provocative quip have been ascribed to so many artists—including Balanchine and Stravinksy, to name only two prominent figures in my field, which is dance—that it is impossible to know who originated it. The remark itself appears to have been borrowed—or stolen—multiple times. The point: that an idea completely appropriated, digested, and re-presented by an artist is not merely borrowed but transformed, and therefore rightly owned. If that is true, then stealing is always acceptable—and a prerogative of greatness.

The problem of “stealing” arises only when an aggrieved artist alleges that this taking-and-changing process has been insufficiently transformative, especially when there is prestige, career advantage, or, above all, serious money involved. Anxieties over influencing versus being influenced are sharpened to the point of drawing blood when more than a given instance of influence per se lies at stake. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery only until someone else is getting royalties—or selling at auction prices—you think rightly yours.

Artists of the past would find our modern attitude to ownership of ideas strange, to say the least. In Shakespeare’s day, for example, the notion barely existed, if at all. If Shakespeare were our contemporary, he would likely find himself embroiled in a lawsuit for copyright infringement with the chronicler Hollinshed, whose prose the playwright rather openly pillaged. In the words of one scholar, passages of several of Shakespeare’s history plays are more or less metrical transcriptions of Hollinshed into blank iambic pentameter. If that isn’t stealing, what is?

Of course, few would argue that the body of law that attempts to define intellectual property and copyright of artistic production should be abolished altogether. Nonetheless, if only for the sake of intellectual honesty and good faith, we ought to acknowledge how dubious, if not self-contradictory, it is to attempt somehow to define the expression of an idea (which is intrinsically protected by copyright) apart from an idea itself (which is not protected)—the key distinction that undergirds the whole legal apparatus.

In fact, the single most powerful driver behind the series of extensions of copyright beyond the death of the author has been the Walt Disney company, a corporate behemoth which has successfully pressured the US government to prevent Mickey Mouse from dancing into the public domain—Mickey, who, at his birth in 1928, really was a character, but who has long been reduced (or elevated) to the status of brand identity, corporate icon, and so on.

Ultimately, the whole concept of intellectual “property” that underlies the possibility of one artist’s accusing another of “stealing” an idea is rooted in the bourgeois attitude towards knowledge—which is entirely intangible—as a kind of thing. (I mean bourgeois in the historical sense of term, not, as the word is usually used vernacularly in the U.S., as a mere hip insult). The finer the distinctions made in any given lawsuit, the more a detached viewer may see the concerted attempts involved to shore up a giant castle built of sand. For ideas are not, and never really can be, things.

The deepest fear that flows beneath the whole discussion is not the fear of being insufficiently original, or of having our ideas stolen, or of some other artist’s making money that is rightfully ours. The immateriality of all mental activity, including all acts of artistic creation, is what terrifies and appalls and makes us all a little bit desperate. Ideas, ultimately, cannot be owned, borrowed, or stolen—and you can’t take them with you. What we really fear when we admit that we are afraid of having our ideas stolen is death: the howling, unimaginable silence that will ultimately engulf all we do or have ever done.

Christopher Caines is artistic director of Christopher Caines Dance. His most recently published writing is a commissioned essay on Antony Tudor for the Dance Heritage Coalition’s America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures online project. Upcoming performances include his company’s appearance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City for the Feast of St. Francis/The Blessing of the Animals on October 7.

*Photo courtesy of cangaroojack. Photo of Danielle Meder courtesy of Matthieu Da Cruz.

5 thoughts on “When Is It Okay To Steal An Idea?

  1. I like the way Steven Bradley and Christopher Caines talk about how great artists steal. These artists decompile the idea, take out the really good things or the parts they are interested in most, and mix it with their own thoughts and emotions. It is a natural way of evolution. It is a kind of cooperation that can make great ideas even better.

    A couple of years ago I was photographing mostly nature. And that was fine, but at some point I wanted to develop myself as a photographer. I decided to go to school to really learn about photography. A certain part was about technique, but for the most part it was about the work that was done by great photographers and artists. By being exposed to their ideas and concepts I learned that there were different ways and fields in which to make art.

    So looking at the work of other artists is a great help for me, to find my own direction where I want to go with my photography.

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