So basically, you’ve got three options.

“Bad artists copy, great artists steal” 

Maybe it was Picasso who said the above, or maybe the reality is slightly  and fittingly  less exact than that. But for artists, writers, and creatives, navigation between copying and stealing is a constant negotiation.

It’s all a reference
There’s nothing new under the sun, apparently (thanks for coining that one too, Shakespeare!) so most people working in a creative field use references, inspirations, universal stories, homages, pastiches, tributes, knowing nods and winks, and outright theft, to make their products.

It could be the placement of a poster in a shot, or the song used to score a scene, or the colours in a section of painting  it could be any element at all, it doesn’t matter: everything is inextricably linked and referential, and when an artist is creating something, they rely on these references for shorthand, for inspiration, or for any number of other reasons.

But the big question, for me, is how to be inspired, to absorb influence, and let it have free reign on your work, without crossing ‘the line’. That line shifts constantly too. That line is where “inspired by” becomes “stolen from”.

Impro Doyen Patti Stiles published a blogpost in which she speaks quite eloquently about the phrase “I’m stealing that”, which is often used in improv circles to function as some sort of compliment/statement of self-permission to appropriate some other improviser’s format or idea.

That blasé attitude and winky jokey approach fits (or perhaps doesn’t fit) somewhere in the context of creative integrity, and the liberalness with which we borrow from other works.

Is theft so bad?
Jonathan Lethem, in this article from Harper’s, asks the reader to “consider the remarkable series of ‘plagiarisms’ that links Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, or Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, copied nearly verbatim from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Antony and also later nicked by T. S. Eliot for The Waste Land. If these are examples of plagiarism, then we want more plagiarism.”

There are two things that we have in life: our reputation and our work. If our reputation is sullied, the work won’t matter. But if the work is good the reputation grows. And, in the case of almost any art, the best thing you can do is expose yourself to the work of others who you admire, who inspire you. That’s why writers can also be thought of as ‘readers’, and painters spend time at art galleries.

But an unconscious connection can easily shuffle over to the side of appropriation. One way to navigate all this trickiness is attribution. When we beg, borrow or steal ideas we tip our hat to their sources  at least.

For example, Shia Lebeouf’s recent short film Howard, a so thorough-that-it’s-quite-nearly-impossible-to-fathom plagiarism of Daniel Clowes’ 2007 comic Justin M. Damiano. It’s a bizarre and very public example of copying without attribution.

Admit it: he has a point.

More fun is comedian Nathan Fielder’s Dumb Starbucks stunt in LA. Fielder created an almost-exact replica of a Starbucks store, but adjusted all the instances of the word Starbucks to read “Dumb Starbucks“. It got a lot of attention before being closed down for violating health codes. That wholesale rip-off of Starbucks was hilarious and knowing, that got lots of positive press.

Fielder’s source was quite obvious, but his mode of appropriation was upfront, knowing, and legal. As for Lebeouf… well, it’s really hard to know what to make of that whole thing. I guess it’s this: people can be super-weird.

Sincere flattery
So: “don’t steal” is a pretty good motto. And so is “respect and honour your sources”. Those seem to be words worth working by.

But then I read this conflicting advice from entrepreneurial guru and author Seth Godin, who suggests you just “steal your business model.”

“We don’t have a shortage of business models, it’s okay if you pick one that’s already working for someone else. Steal your web design… Steal your tools. Once someone has a reliable, cost-effective building block, feel free to use it.”

That seems counter-intuitive, and antithetical to an honourable creative mindset. But I get it; there is a sense to it. When applied to art, it boils down to: don’t reinvent the wheel.

Godin continues:

“When it comes down to the thing you will be known for, your uniqueness, your gift, your thing worth talking about–don’t steal that. Writers shouldn’t steal words from other writers, and chemists have no need to steal the research of other chemists.”

And that is the key: we can all be inspired by others  in fact we should be inspired. And we need to use and remix sources in our creative work.

So go ahead and follow the path of least resistance (the road more traveled) when you’re building up your reputation, and be inspired by whatever inspires you when you’re creating whatever it is that you create. Just make sure the content is your own.

And attribute where appropriate.