Have you ever stolen someone else’s stuff?
No, I don’t mean swiping a piece of candy when the cashier looks away. I mean, The Big Steal. That heart-wringing, God-will-smite-you kind of dacoity that gets your moral-half burning into flames of shame? You have? Excellent.
Because now you know what stealing shouldn’t feel like. But don’t let past delinquency rain on your parade. You obviously haven’t learned to steal the right way…
Listen to Malcolm Gladwell. “In ordinary language,” he writes in The New Yorker, “to call a copyright a ‘property’ right is misleading for the property of copyright is an odd kind of property.” He explains this by comparing theft of physical objects with non-physical ones.
“When I take the table you put in your backyard, I am taking a thing, the table, and after I take it, you don’t have it. But what am I taking when I take the good idea you had to put a table in the backyard – by going to (buy such) a table and putting it in my backyard? What is the thing I am taking then?”
Gladwell’s point isn’t about tangibility versus intangibility. Instead, he highlights, “In practically every case except for a narrow range of exceptions – ideas released to the world are free.” Isn’t that the way creativity is meant to work? Old words in the service of a new idea aren’t the problem. What retards creativity is new words in the service of an old idea.
Thomas Jefferson sympathised: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
American composer, Lukas Foss, brings into focus the analogy of stealing that, he believes, doesn’t work.
“With a thief,” he explains, “we want to know how much money he stole, and from whom. With the artist it is not how much he took and from whom, but what he did with it.”
Foss isn’t alone on this one. Take George Orwell who believed “Dickens is one of those authors who are well worth stealing.”
Or Pablo Picasso, whose stroke of genius on the subject still resonates today: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”
So if imitation is the highest form of flattery, what about that slippery surface in the business called ‘inspiration’? Where do we draw the line between what is acceptable (that which is inspired) and unacceptable (outright plagiarism) when it comes to an ocean of fluid ideas whose currents run cross-culturally with a mimetic, viral intensity?
We can ask Nobel Laureate, T. S. Eliot, who clarifies how “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Because “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different” so that what they start and end with are two unique spaces apart.
But sometimes ending up spaces or even centuries apart doesn’t explain people’s longing for the comfort of the familiar, the tried and tested, the proven and the fail-safe. Why should we take from the past, when there is so much to create from today? Does true creativity come with an old soul? Maybe, suggests Arundhati Roy.
“The secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. (They) are the ones you want to hear again. The ones you can inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive (nor) surprise you. In the Great Stories,” Roy surmises, “you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.”
And it is in this re-telling, in this carefully curated reinvention of timeless truths that new forms of creativity flourish and become relevant to the age they are borne into. Which means it’s clearer to understand what you can and cannot steal.
For instance, you can steal your business card. There is no shortage of them. Pick one that works and you won’t disturb the universe. You can steal your web design. There are billions of them and you can do us all a small favor and use something that works without all the coding getting in our way. You can steal your tools. You don’t need a new way to run payroll or archive email. If it’s cost-effective, just get out of the way and use it.
But when it comes down to what gift you bring into the world (your talent, your skill, your uniqueness), don’t steal that. Because the only way to honour those who came before you, is to stand on their shoulders and use their work as a foundation for yours.
So go steal. But steal well.