Beg, Borrow, Steal: Why It’s OK That Nothing You Make Is Original

steal like an artist
Image via Flickr

In school, you got in trouble for copying the work of others. As a college student, you may have worried that the RIAA would show up at your house if you pirated too much music from LimeWire. As an adult, you’ve had to navigate the complex realms of copyright, fair use, open source, and creative commons. But the fact is, theft — within reason — is absolutely the purview of artists and creatives. We’re good at it, and that’s ok.

Austin Kleon‘s brilliant book, “Steal Like An Artist,” is a New York Times bestseller, and has been translated into dozens of languages. The book, which offers the advice Austin wishes he’d heard when he was younger, seems to have come as a welcome letter of permission to creatives, who just wanted to hear what they already knew: That very, very few of us are making something entirely new, and that copying, remixing, borrowing, and other traditionally frowned-upon methods of imitation are actually totally valid artistic means. But Austin was hardly the first person to note that stealing — which is notably different from plagiarizing, which we’ll get to in a moment — is a great way to make your own thing.

In his recent TED Talk, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson argued that nothing is original — everything is a remix or reworked version of something else. The example he uses is Bob Dylan, who many claimed was a thief of melody and lyrics. But who was he stealing those from? Folk artists like Woody Guthrie? Even Woody admitted to stealing his ideas.

“The words are the important thing,” Woody Guthrie once explained, “Don’t worry about tunes. Take a tune, sing high when they sing low, sing fast when they sing slow, and you’ve got a new tune.”

But stealing like an artist reaches even further back than Americana. Take this quote from poet T.S. Elliot:

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Ah, there’s the rub — to be a good creative thief, you can’t gloss over the “making it into something better” part of that advice. Austin lays out the difference between good stealing and bad stealing (which is called plagiarism, which is both highly illegal and also not really a creative pursuit, but rather, a lazy one):

steal like an artist

Failure to offer credit, or to reshape a thing into your own work is not creative or artistic; it’s untruthful, it’s unoriginal. It uses the work of someone else without payment or exposure to the original artist. It does not help build on the greater culture of art. And it can end a career — take the example of Jonah Lehrer, who ironically was caught plagiarizing and, in fact, falsifying information in his book, Imagine, which was all about the inner workings of creative thought. As a result of the plagiarism charges, Jonah saw himself fall from public radio boy wonder to, well, a prime example of what happens when you don’t steal like an artist.

Of course, even stealing in an original, thoughtful, with-due-credit manner can be difficult. T.S. Elliot and Woody Guthrie weren’t working in a time of strict patent laws, of copyright infringement cases, of the DMCA, the arms race that is the rush to develop the next iPhone. In today’s culture of great innovation (and with it, great secrecy), remixing, borrowing, and stealing is more fraught than ever. Amazon is patenting something that literally every product photographer uses as their own, making it illegal to use the same technology. Apple went from stealing content themselves to ruthlessly pursuing Android  for doing basically the same thing.

As Kirby Ferguson explains in his TED talk, this reticence to share ideas and information is natural — and backed by law. Copyright law in the US treat ideas like property, which makes the borrowing of thoughts and inventions feel like, well, active theft.

“In other words, great artists steal — but not from me,” explains Kirby, who points out that “loss aversion” is a common behavioral trait. “We have a strong predisposition toward protecting what we think is ours.” As a result, companies and individuals spend billions of dollars assembling patents, suing each other, counter-suing, and defending themselves. And they have the law on their side; despite the fact that copyright laws were put in place to advance the ability for innovations to build on each other, they have the exact opposite effect. The many lawsuits and countersuits between inventors and artists and creatives exist just to ensure that everyone is only ever coming up with original ideas.

Which is, if the history of creatives has taught us anything, impossible. Because people have been stealing like artists since forever. And that’s ok.

“Our creativity comes from without, not from within,” Kirby explains.

Truthfully, everything is a remix — something borrowed, something copied. Unfortunately, due to a climate that is in direct contradiction to what the laws have set out to do, we’ve just had to get better at covering our tracks. But if you’re stuck on a project or feeling like you’ve got nothing to offer, turn to works you respect and respond to. Then do that thing, but do it your way.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.