Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Stealing Ideas

I like art and literature, and therefore I also like remixes and adaptation. I've been hearing a lot of Picasso's T.S. Eliot's "good artists borrow, great artists steal" maxim. Also, I've been teaching Milton, who in Paradise Lost not only adapted Genesis but also blatantly stole from Ariosto.

The problem with that quote is that "borrow" seems good, and "steal" seems bad. The quote makes it sound as if the True Geniuses of Mankind are all jerks, and that only by being jerks can they exert their Geniusness.

That's missing the point entirely. Stealing ideas is better than borrowing ideas. If I borrow a book, I have to give it back. If I steal a book, it's mine. However, like Cory Doctorow on "buying" licenses to DRM'd digital works vs stealing those digital works—the one you steal will never get arbitrarily deleted if the DRM company goes bankrupt—borrowing and stealing ideas is different. Contrary to public opinion, there is no shortage on ideas. There is no idea deficit. Ideas come out of the ether, they sublime from books and movies and human interactions. They just pop in your head and you can't control them. That's ideas for you. If I use your idea, you aren't suddenly without it any more. No, now we both have it. Ideas are not zero-sum.

So how do "borrow" and "steal" even apply? OK, here we go. If I "borrow" an idea, just like when I borrow a book, I know in every waking moment that it's not mine. It's not a part of me, and I'll be very careful around it because I see it chained to someone else. Whenever I talk about that idea, I'll reference someone else not simply to preserve attribution and good faith and all that, but because I'm uneasy around that idea. It's not mine, in the same way that to me a given funny story will never be mine, but always my father's. If I tell my daughter, though, she'll assume it's mine unless I tell her where it came from. I do that now, with my students. I tell them where I get a lot of stuff, because I'm uncomfortable claiming any (fleeting, transitory, meaningless) honor of "I came up with that."

When I get beyond that, if I get beyond that—when I realize that ideas and apothegms and proverbs and metaphors are just floating around, I can get it and use it. That's not your book, that's my book—I borrowed it years ago, but I've possessed it ten times as long as you did, and it has my notes in it and it's been a major part of my life, not yours. Those creases in the spine are mine, not yours. If you want it back, my duty is not to return it but to buy you another copy.

This works not only horizontally across friendship, but vertically, across generations. I have some books that are mine that used to be my dad's. They're mine in a way they never were his. He gave me ideas that live in my head, ideas that he tossed off one day that will stick with me forever. In a sense, I've stolen myself from him. I was his son, and now I'm my own man. In a non-zero-sum world, relationships don't change, information doesn't abandon its source—it just finds a new place. If I steal it, I make that place a home.