By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
Good artists copy and great artists steal. – Picasso *
Ideas don’t come out of nothing. It would be easy to make the case that every idea and invention, from toilets to software to music or smart phones or even printing or gunpowder came from somewhere else.
The concept of patents and copyrights, for example, is relatively new.
Shakespeare made a regular practice of lifting other people’s stories or adapting familiar tales into his plays.
We have a mythology of the solo entrepreneur, the solitary genius and creative team that invents and develops what no one else could.
There is a near-industry of these “creatives,” from Steve Jobs to Thomas Edison and many more.
But the reality is very different; ideas and concepts are stolen, lifted, adapted, reconfigured, reframed and marketed in different ways constantly.
Even Picasso’s famous quote was almost certainly lifted from T.S. Eliot, who said, “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” *
Steve Jobs, one America’s favorite folk-heroes of creativity borrowed virtually every concept of the Macintosh computer from a similar device that was shown to him at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Each aspect that most of us associate with the first Apple came first from Xerox; the computer mouse, the GUI (Graphic User Interface) and much more. Apple just put it all in one easier-to-access unit.
When it comes to the movie industry, good luck finding originality.
Screenwriter Wilson Mizner said, “If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism, and if you steal from many, it’s research.”
See the film Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino? Virtually every scene is a remake from another earlier film.
You may have heard of Led Zeppelin cover bands (local bands that “cover” Led Zeppelin songs). But many Rock critics observe that Led Zeppelin is itself a cover band. The vast majority of the Led Zeppelin’s songs – especially their most famous – were lifted or creatively adapted – or amplified – and made their own.
Even Albert Einstein, our favorite poster-child for genius observed that “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”
Even Walt Disney lifted many, if not most of his story lines from traditional tales. You think Cinderella, Bambi or even Lion King were original stories?
You thought Star Wars was an original story?
I used to show this video in my college classes: https://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/. (One time as we began our discussion after watching this episode, one student mournfully exclaimed “No! Not Star Wars!”)
Yes, Star Wars is a remix, as are smartphones (the first smartphone, the Simon Personal Communicator, was released by IBM in 1994) and even electric cars (there were several models available over a hundred years ago).
I mention all this because our belief in the solo creator receiving a revelation, from Tesla to Zuckerberg, is a total myth.
And it is a myth that wastes time and money, impedes progress and prosperity and even endangers health and human life.
Everything, to use a phrase, is a remix – an adaptation, a reconfiguration, a new version. Everything any of us creates, from software, to songs, to soup, is copied, transformed and combined from fragments, if not entire chunks from our culture.
How many folk songs, or movies are re-workings of previous versions? Certainly most.
Every once in a while we have a prominent political agenda wrapped around “protecting our trade secrets.”
I hate to think of what would have happened to literature and music if such a belief system had been at work in the time of Shakespeare, Walt Disney, Broadway musicals, or even the early days of Apple.
As every parent knows, children learn everything, from eating, to using the bathroom to talking, and much more, from observing and copying. That’s how humans learn.
Very little, if any learning is acquired by divine (or other) inspiration; learning comes from noticing what others are (or should not) be doing.
From learning musical scales to brushing our teeth, we observe others, copy it and make it work for us. Every skill, behavior, even our way of thinking and speaking, is absorbed or adapted from others.
Just about every invention, from computer keyboards to Wi-Fi is an adaptation from something that already existed, and was adapted to solve a problem or work better.
“To teach that a comparatively few men are responsible for the greatest forward steps of mankind is the worst sort of nonsense.” – Henry Ford
We might be worried about people “stealing” our secrets, but the far more real (and costly) threat is that of companies sitting on patents.
When a company or industry spends more money on “protecting” its ideas than developing them, we all, consumers, marketers and future entrepreneurs suffer.
What if Xerox had sued Apple for every use of their technology?
There a solution of course. More and more items and developments are “open source.” From the web browser Firefox to Wikipedia, 21st Century entrepreneurship is slipping through the cracks and under the radar of traditional copyright protection.
Standard definitions of all sorts are changing; are Uber drivers employees or contractors?
Our economy, ready or not, is moving toward open source in every way. Are we prepared to hold our established rules and laws a little looser as technology, disease, demographic differences and climate change force our hand as we address problems that seem to defy solution?
Attitudes toward ownership – from homes to music and much more have changed dramatically. The enduring gig economy and non-traditional livelihoods (like Airbnb or TaskRabbit) are changing the legal and economic landscape faster than our legal system can keep up with.
There are solutions.
Open source (https://opensource.org/) is a way that we, all of us, can participate in technology that benefits us all.
The idea that any one company or even individual could “own” an idea or concept is a strange, and historically modern belief.
It used to be called a monopoly – and virtually every culture and industry had laws or rules against it.
But now, in technology, in medicine and in any other arena, we take monopoly as an ideal, even if we just sit on the patent and keep anyone else from developing it.
Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio in 1955. When asked who own the rights, he answered “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
The Disney company had, and still holds, a different view on such things. Even though, under normal circumstances copyrights and patents expire, somehow in the case of Mickey Mouse, the laws keep changing –https://alj.artrepreneur.com/mickey-mouse-keeps-changing-copyright-law/#:~:.
Patent lawyers would indeed patent the sun if they could. One large computer company many years ago named their new product “2”. And yes, they sought ownership of the word “2”.
I understand copyright protection, and agree that ownership should be exclusive for a limited period of time – probably a shorter time span for medical breakthroughs. (A COVID vaccine, for example, should be primarily a public service, instead of a profit-making venture).
On one hand, you could not come up with a legal premise more at odds with human nature and history, a set of laws that invites, if not begs for, neglect or avoidance.
Napster, for example, was an idea that butted up against legal restrictions some years ago. But who does not stream music or videos now?
Yes, Good artists copy and great artists steal.
The best musicians, parents, writers, students and yes, even business people steal (in some sense of the word). That’s how progress works.
As we look at our laws, we need to consider who our laws serve and who they protect. They should serve and protect us all.
* Editor’s note: for an interesting discussion of the origins and attribution of this quote see this page: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/03/06/artists-steal/ and for a discussion of its meaning see here: https://lifehacker.com/an-artist-explains-what-great-artists-steal-really-me-1818808264.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
– Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV
One of my creative writing professors told the class there are only 27 basic plots that could be used to describe all stories, and I’ve seen that number argued as low as only 7, and even 3. Could be true – after all, this entire article is made up of only 26 letters. – D