Not that I still don’t have reservations about the whole concept of stealing, well, anything. After all, I was raised as a preacher’s kid, did the whole Eagle Scout thing, and as a father raised two more Eagle Scout sons, so right and wrong have been recurring themes in my life.
Plus I work as a designer, and collaborate with photographers, illustrators and other creatives much of the time. Most of us who are artists (visual, musical and written) are pretty touchy about the idea of someone copying our ideas or being accused of copying someone else.
And, I mean, stealing is wrong – right? Well, it turns out that “stealing” has a lot of grey areas, depending on who you ask, and what you do with it.
I’m no lawyer, but I do know you can refer to someone’s work as long as you give them credit, but you cannot use their photo or illustration without their permission. You can’t even make an illustration from a photo without causing a brouhaha, as artist Shepard Fairey found out.
So what about an idea? Well, ideas are not protected, only the execution of the idea. Your great idea for an auto loan campaign this year? You can probably expect to see a variation of it next year by another credit union. Especially if it wins a few awards in CUNA or MAC or your state league competitions.
But while it may be legal, does that make it right to steal someone else’s idea? And what if it was unintentional stealing? Can you help it if something you thought was completely original turns out to be eerily similar to work by someone else?
Author Austin Kleon may have it about right. His theory is that we are all just a mashup of influences in our lives. That we can’t help but be influenced by what is around us, and what we admire. That we can embrace these influences, then remix them to find our own creativity. In his book Steal Like an Artist, he even helpfully lists the differences between a “bad theft” and a “good theft”: credit v. plagiarize, transform v. imitate, remix v. ripoff, etc.
In other words, it’s okay to take something and build on it, to add a unique twist, to make it your own. But like your second grade teacher told you, it is wrong to copy off of someone else.
Another way to tell if you crossed the line between influence and rip-off? You’ll feel it. Somewhere between your gut and your head.
Right around your heart.