Good Artists Borrow. Great Artists Steal

How to use mental models to build on someone else’s idea to create something new
Good Artists Borrow. Great Artists Steal
Jake McNeill
June 3, 2021
5 min read
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In 1949, Adolf Hassler formed a company called Adidas. His brother, Rudolf was pissed off about this. 

Why? Because he’d stolen the idea and the sneaker design of his company called Puma. 

After the two brands emerged, they set up factories on opposite sides of the Aurach River. People in the area chose one brand or the other, fuelling the rivalry beyond the two brothers. 

Anyone who has seen The Social Network knows that Zuckerberg’s former classmates successfully sued him for millions of dollars for stealing their idea. 

Zuckerberg agreed to help his classmates after becoming infamous on campus for launching Facemash, Harvard’s version of ‘Hot or Not’

Messages Zuckerberg sent to another classmate do back up his classmate’s claims that he deliberately delayed their project so he could launch Facebook. 

“Good artists borrow, Great artists steal. We have been shameless about stealing good ideas — Steve Jobs.
  • In 1963, Doug Engelbart invent the mouse. He patents it in 1970. 1979 Jobs visited Xerox engineers at Palo Alto research centre, taking inspiration for both the mouse and the interface.
  • The iPod sold over 300 million units. Apple admitted to stealing the iPod concept from Britains’ Kane Kramer who invented a similar device in 1979. 
  • The iTunes Store was based on SoundJam by Jeff Robbin and Bill Kincaird. Apple bought the company in 2000. 
  • Multitouch screen technology was invented by Fingerworks in 1998 and bought by Apple in 2005. 
“I invented nothing new. I simply assembled the discoveries of other men behind whom were centuries of work.” —Henry Ford

Nothing is original. 

Our creativity comes from out with and not within.  We are not self-made, we are dependant on one another. 

Our creativity is universal.

The problem is we feel under pressure to create something completely unique. Whereas what we really need to do is find something that is working, and build on it to create something new. 

What is acceptable in stealing ideas? Where is the fine line between stealing and plagiarising? 

When you copy or plagiarise you are recreating a lesser version and diluting the original. When you steal an idea you make it into something new. 

You take it in a different direction.

First principle thinking

The best way to build on someone else’s idea is to reverse engineer it into the fundamental parts. 

 Then rebuild it in to something else.

Elon Musk credits first principle thinking to get his rockets into space and the electric car batteries small and cheap enough to power Teslas.

How does first principle thinking work? 

Take this article for example…

  • It’s a series of paragraphs
  • Which are a series of sentences 
  • Which are a series of words.

Therefore the first principle and fundamental of articles are words. 

How can we build on this to create something new?

  • We can write more words, sentences, and paragraphs to create more articles. 
  • We can take those articles and turn them into chapters.
  • We can take the chapters and make them into a book. We can write more books and make them into a trilogy. 
  • We can build on that further and maybe turn the books into a movie. Or use the same content to create a podcast series. 

You get the picture…

By breaking down successful ideas into the fundamental components you can re-build them into something much bigger. 

Stolen ideas are all around you

In Macbeth, a ghost prophesies about a forest army uprooting and attacking the castle. 

Most people only recognise that scene from Lord of the Rings. The Lion King is a child-friendly version of Hamlet.

West Side Story is Romeo and Juliet.

Elvis Pressley was the king of rock and roll but it was a genre that was stolen from black artists like Chucky Berry and Little Richard.

Indeed, Elvis’ debut hit was a cover song ‘That’s All Right (Mama)’

“Plagiarism is an ugly word for what, in rock and roll, is a natural and necessary – even admirable – tendency, and that is to steal.” 
— Nick Cave

Cave views theft as an “engine of progress” which can only be absolved and justified once the stolen material is advanced to such an extent that it becomes covetable in its own light. 

It’s often a fine line between stealing and plagiarising. 

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke know this all too well after being ordered to pay $7.4m to Marvin Gaye’ estate over the ironically titled “Blurred Lines.”

“I steal from every single movie ever made. I love it—if my work has anything it’s that I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together….I steal from everything. Great artists steal, they don’t do homages.”  
— Quentin Tarantino

What ideas are you going to steal to create something new?

A bit about me

I help maverick artists and creatives make a racket in crowded markets, crush the creative blocks that hold them back, and build engaged audiences.

Every creative rebel’s worst enemy?

Creative mediocrity: Being bland. Staying in our lane. Creating in our comfort zone and following the crowds.

The Goal? To create authentic work that matters. Take creative risks, avoid creative burnout, and making a racket in saturated markets.

I’m a former multi-platinum artist manager who got burnt out and became a creative blogger, coach, and consultant.

I’ve challenged myself to write 50 articles in 50 working days. 15 down, 35 to go.

Find out more information on my website or connect on my LinkedIn

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