The Creativity Delusion: Geniuses Steal


We know geniuses are not real and minds don’t have Eureka moments. But we still cling to the idea of an original artist. That romantic notion of someone who creates something out of nothing, with their mind alone.

But the truth is every single piece of art and technology ever created is a remix. Shakespeare copied. Mozart copied. Picasso copied. Morse copied. Tarkovsky copied too. They’re all based in the work of others before them. The obsession with originality is quite a new phenomenon in the history of our species. And maybe it’s time to reconsider how art and inventions come about before our laws destroy the very creativity we want to protect.

Art and inventions are extraordinary, there is no doubt about that. But the steps taken are quite ordinary. We don’t need magical out-of-this world explanations when the answers are right in front of us. And it’s a lot easier to get started on something when you don’t expect your ideas to come from another world, isn’t it?

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Steve Jobs: “Picasso had a saying: good artists copy, great artists steal”.

And Picasso, the great artist that he was, has indeed stolen the quote:

The oldest recorded quote dates back to an article published in 1892. It reads „[…] great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.” – W.H. Davenport Adams

  • Almost 30 years later, poet T. S. Eliot flipped Davenport’s meaning writing that „immature poets imitate; mature poets steal;” – 1920
  • In 1959, Eliot was quoted for referring to all artists: „immature artists borrow; mature artists steal”
  • Later, more people were quoted to have said this, each quote leaning in a slightly new direction:
    • Lionel Trilling ( 1962): “Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.”
    • William Faulkner (1974): “Immature artists copy, great artists steal.”
    • Igor Stravinsky (1986): “Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.”

At last, in 1996, Steve Jobs quotes Picasso.

It doesn’t really matter whether or not this quote actually belongs to Picasso. Its history is more important than its author. The pattern of borrowing, combining, and improving is how creation works in all areas of creativity.

“Great artists steal”. You might tend to agree with that. But, at the same time, you might find these works, which are far from building anew, lazy. Real Art, we’re told, is the product of exceptional achievement, different from anything that’s been done before. After all, the great creators in history never went around borrowing and copying other people’s works…  did they?

Handel sampled from all these people (Graun, Kerll, Muffat, Telemann, Keiser, Kuhnau, Habermann, Carissimi, Urio, Erba, Stradella, Porta, Lotti, Legrenzi, Astorga, Steffani, Bononcini, Clari, Cavalli). Stravinski and Mozart both parodied their contemporaries. Mozart remixed a Viennese opera for his “Magic Flute”. Mahler’s 3rd symphony quoted Brahms’ first – which in turn was very similar to Beethoven’s style. Who, in his turn, quoted Handel.

Or if you’re fan of Star Wars, you certainly know this one. Except that’s not Star Wars. This is Star Wars. John Williams remixed tunes from many classical composers, such as Wagner, Stravinsky, Strauss, Korngold and Holst.

And it doesn’t stop here.

  • Shakespeare copied his famous love story from The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet. He also mashed up significant chunks from George North, Thomas Kyd, Raphael Holinshed, Chaucer, Ovid, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, and many many more.
  • Michelangelo forged sculptures early on in his career.
  • Van Gogh made 21 copies after Millet, the artist he greatly admired.
  • T.S. Eliot famously copied a sizeable chunk from Madison Cawein to write The Waste Land.
  • Picasso made several remixes of Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass. Just like Manet had previously borrowed from Raimondi.

Oh, and George Orwell’s 1984? Inspired big time by the plot and themes of a little Russian novel called We, by Yevghenyi Zamyatin, which the Brit had reviewed with great enthusiasm.

It’s fair to say we don’t react very well to these sort of things. Remix is usually an insult. Being unoriginal is a huge fear. We feel betrayed and angry. We feel the very core of creativity is being broken.

And that’s … that’s actually perfectly fine.

Plagiarism is not something to be taken lightly. Copying is something to look into. On the other hand, art… is a giant copy. Shakespeare, Beethoven and even your favorite artist did indeed copy. And it’s not news, because it’s been known for ages in the academic world. It’s just that the rest of us have grown pretty righteous about it…

James Boyle, co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain: “It turns out that with most of our creative work, we use prior creativity to make our new creativity” (Copy This Podcast, Episode 11). “We’re not claiming musicians shouldn’t get paid; we’re not saying that [if] someone takes an entire copyrighted song and reproduces without attribution, without payment, without permission, that that is appropriate, we’re not saying that at all” (Techdirt Podcast, Episode 127).

Christine Boon, musicologist: “The genius, I think, is taking these kind of preexisting structures that we use and being creative enough with it to have something new.” (Hi-Phi Nation, Episode 5) James Boyle: “If you understand culture and creativity, you have to understand that a lot of it is accretive, it builds on itself, culture refers to other culture”. Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain: “Borrowing isn’t something new, but many of the practices that have been coded as creativity in the past (or inspiration), now seem to have become coded as theft.”

We’ve grown more and more territorial about originality ever since we started to view man in the center of the universe. But before that, came millennia of culture as a playground for remix.

Culture is like language.

The closer you look, the more elements you see. Music borrowing, styles and themes can be easily traced back through time all the way to Babylonian times. And while music probably existed well before language, fairy tales are as least as old as wheels and writing.

Stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Beauty and the Beast are more than 2,500 years old. And the story of a man selling his soul to the devil to gain supernatural abilities, like any of these ones… dates back 6,000 years.

Culture is almost completely inherited.

Your brain is constantly blasted with culture, because you live in it. You absorb all this in your daily routine, and through all the people and media you encounter. It exits through your photos, your drawings, your writing, your voice. Ideas flow in and out of each of us. And each time… they mutate.

Kids know that best: when you start learning something, you begin by copying it. Van Gogh considered his copies “translations”, similar to a musician’s interpretation of a composer’s work. For a long time, copying the masters was considered a valuable skill. More recent studies have proven that copying other people’s art actually boosts creativity.

Culture breeds culture.

And when we have access to the same assortment of knowledge, things inevitably start to appear in several places at the same time:

  • 5 people invented the steamboat between 1802 and 1807
  • 6 people conceived of the electric railroad between 1835 and 1850;
  • The telegraph was invented by not only Morse, but by 4 other people so close in time with each other that the court refused to issue one patent.
  • There are at least 148 known cases of big ideas coming to several people at the same time.

Photographers can take the same picture without even knowing it. Similar movies released in the same year are so frequent, that there’s even a term to describe them (twin films):

  • Two movies about snow white (Mirror Mirror & Snow White and the Huntsman, 2012)
  • A talking pig (Babe & Gordy, 1995)
  • Casual sex (Friends with Benefits & No Strings Attached, 2011)
  • Abandoned earth (Oblivion & After Earth, 2013)
  • Fighter jet pilots (Top Gun & Iron Eagle, 1986)
  • Or 5 movies about the deep ocean released just months apart (Deep Star Six, Leviathan, Lords of the Deep, The Evil Below & The Abyss, all in 1989)

The best ideas are unoriginal.

The harder we try to be original, the more we arrive at the same boring and old ideas. The more we try, the more we block our imagination. If say, da Vinci, knew about how famous his painting would be, he may never could have started painting it.

What’s wrong in believing in originality? Nothing, if everyone can create freely. But if we draw our laws around these romantic myths, everyone stands to lose.

  • Apple was awarded a patent for a phone with the “original” idea of rounded corners.
  • German chefs can claim ownership over the arrangement of their food on plates.
  • JD Salinger successfully banned the publication of a sequel to Catcher in the Rye that somebody else dared write
  • Verizon had to pay LucasFilms to use the word “droid”, even if it was coined in the 50s, 20 years before Star Wars
  • And in the most dreadful lawsuit so far, Robin Thicke paid 5.3 million dollars to Marvin Gaye over “the feel” of Gaye’s song. Even though Gaye’s feel feels quite similar to other songs before it. Even though Gaye’s groove feels more similar to plenty of funk songs from its time.

“Yeah, there’s a similar sound because they’re both funk songs”

Should no one be allowed to make funk songs anymore? Should every spy movie pay a fee to feature a car chase? Should somebody own E=mc2 or the alphabet?

“Remember that if you ask for greater control, people tend to think it’s like “Oh, I’m gonna be better off because I have more control over my outputs”. That also means your inputs, the stuff that you get in is also be controlled”. “The creator stands at a nexus. He or she needs control – yay, that’s good; but he or she needs raw material.” (James Boyle)

In the effort to protect creativity, we ended up overprotecting it.

Copyright now lasts the life of the author +70 years (580% longer). Nine out of ten patents granted in the United States are now owned by corporations. And borrowing, the essential seed needed for art and science to grow, is now ignored and frowned upon.

“We have effectively ruled most of the culture of the 20th century off limits”. Would jazz, blues or rock and roll be legal today? Well, not without a lot of lawyers and a lot of money!” (James Boyle)

Creation is sometimes fueled by the promise of future rewards. But most times creating is about autonomy, confidence, time and space for work and other subjective and very personal drives. Does more protection lead to more creativity? To the extent of the data so far… “we have found that the evidence is extremely weak and often negative. That is to say, increasing copyright protection hurts it”.

More sources here: #1, #2, #3, #4

We owe everything to the thousands of generations of people who built our land of ideas . This generation is the first one to reduce its freedoms and give this land away to landlords. Creation always makes a deep impression. It’s often surprising and awe inspiring. We never see the work, the practice and the luck that brought it to life. We don’t see all the knowledge, the elements, references and expertise that made it polished and refined.

Lone geniuses. Instant sparks. Original ideas. These are all clear and simple explanations that ease our fears and anxieties. We all want to be heroes. And we all want to live up to the expectation of how an artist should think and feel.

But this takes a huge tow on creativity.

We refuse to collaborate, refuse to accept failure. Refuse doubt and indecision as natural parts of the work process. We decline to settle on smaller pieces of progress. And ignore borrowing as the stepping stone of all ideas. We reject the notion that we can do it ourselves with the tools already at hand.

There are no big ideas, only small ones combined and improved in game-changing ways. Creation is a conversation. Culture is a team sport. And if we really listen, we all stand to gain a great deal.

“As an artist one is merely a link in a chain”– Van Gogh (source #1, source #2)

    • Illustrations: Anna Florea
    • Sound Design: Ștefan Teodorescu
    • Edit & Animation: Alex Lungu
    • Voice Over: Ioana Pelehatăi
    • Script: Alex Lungu & Ioana Pelehatăi