My eight year old daughter is crying right now. She’s trying to draw manga-style comic book figures. “The eyes look stupid!” she says, “and the arms look flimsy!” My oldest tries to calm her down, “Mollie, I’m three years older than you. Thats why my characters look so good,” she says, but somehow that doesn’t work and it doesn’t help when my oldest says, “Mollie, guess what, I finished drawing on the whole pad? Aren’t these pretty?”
I tell my youngest, “Mollie, look on the Internet and see how other artists do their eyes and arms. I bet there are some Manga artists who even have videos on how to do it.”
She says, “but that’s copying. I don’t want to copy. I refuse.”
Good Artists Copy. Great Artists Steal.
So I tell her my favorite quote from Picasso, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” And my oldest says, “that would mean HE stole.” And I tell her that’s right but still my youngest refuses to listen. She says, “I don’t want to copy. I want to do something completely original.” But that’s impossible. Just about every idea worked on now is a result of the following recursive formula:
NI(X) = NI(1) + NI(2 )+ NI(3)… + MI
Where “NI” = “new idea” and NI1, NI2, etc equals various new ideas as of yesterday. And “MI” which could be a tiny component of the whole equation, is “My improvement”. Which, again, might be minimal, or zero, at best.
Telescope. Galileo stole the telescope. He took the original invention by Hans Lippershey, made it a bit longer and more powerful and gets full credit 400 years later for the invention.
Telephone. Who invented the telephone? Well, Alexander Graham Bell of course? But only after the looked at the failed patent Antonio Meucci filed in 1874 (Meucci was too poor to send in the $10 patent charge. So…patent denied. Enter Bell).
Relativity. Einstein stole part of the theory of relativity from Poincare. Poincare published countless papers on relativity that Einstein had studied before his own first book on relativity. Einstein cited hundreds of sources but didn’t mention Poincare once. Do the research but there are several instances of direct plagiarism in his initial book on relativity.
Search. Google. Not quite a “steal” in the sense of the above but the entire concept of a “search engine” was dead and over by the time Google hit the scene. My little story on this: A company called “Oingo” came calling one of my partners one day in 2000 or 2001. I forget which year, that’s how little impact it made on me. They were working on some algorithm for matching ads with web pages on search engines, or something like that. They needed funding badly. We almost could’ve named our price. I said, because I was the resident genius, “No way. Isn’t the entire search engine business dead?” Somehow they survived, changed their name to Applied Semantics and were bought by a tiny search engine company with no revenues called Google. The Oingo algorithm became “Adsense” which accounts for 99% of Google’s revenues. The Applied Semantics deal would’ve been worth about $1bb – $2bb by now. Suffice to say, Google built on the backs of everyone from Lycos to Oingo to Altavista, etc.
Superman. “Captain Marvel”, which was first put out by Fawcett Comics in 1940 was of course a direct ripoff of “Superman” and yet became very successful.
And Superman himself may have been a plagiarism of sorts. 5 years before the first “Superman” came out, Jerry Siegel (Superman’s creator) reviewed the book “Gladiator” about a boy growing up in rural America who had super powers.
Siegel claimed in 1940 that Gladiator had not been an inspiration. He did not at that point note his 1932 review of the book.
Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson directly plagiarized John Locke when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. James Madison even admitted later: “The object was to assert, not to discover truths.”
Chess. Bobby Fischer learned Russian when he was 14 years old so he could steal ideas from the Russian chessplayers in the magazine “64”. He used those opening ideas to win the US Championship at the age of 15 in the mid 1950s.
Art. Roy Lichtenstein directly stole from the cartoon strip “True Romance” to repackage and then resell for (now) millions.
Star Wars. Whether you call it inspiration or plagiarism, George Lucas took ideas from everything from Taoism to Asimov’s Foundation series, to Joseph cambell, Greek Mythology, King Arthur, etc.
Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut said he “cheerfully ripped off” the plot of Brave New World for his novel, “Player Piano”- and Aldous Huxley, in turn, stole it from Eugene Zamatian’s We
Groupon and every other business. Almost all current successful internet businesses are the result of lifting (and improving) the ideas from past businesses. Groupon is a direct descendant of the failed Paul Allen company, Mercata (remember?). Facebook (remember Geocities? Or, heaven forbid, Tripod). And why didn’t the “World Wide Web Worm:” succeed (the first search engine that I can think of).
Comedy. In standup comedy, stealing (or improving on) routines has been common. Robin Williams was constantly accused of this early in his career and his reply was that he was so stream of consciousness he sometimes had no idea where the ideas were coming from (i.e., they were coming from his friends even minutes after their acts). Bill Cosby has admitted stealing some jokes from George Carlin, Rosie O’Donnell was known to borrow from Jerry Seinfeld early in their careers. Sam Kinison has accused Bill Hicks of joke thievery who, in turn, has accused Denis Leary of stealing parts of his routine.
3AM. I personally think Comedy Central’s show “Insomnia” is somewhat a ripoff of my III:am idea for HBO (particularly since I pitched the idea to Comedy Central first).
Unfortunately, stealing is not a shortcut to success. Stealing is THE ONLY PATH to success.
How do you steal? Try this.
1. Pick a field you are passionate about: whether its blogging, romance novel writing, comedy, internet entrepreneurship, art, cooking, cancer research, etc.
2. Read everything you can about the field. Here’s what you have to read minimally: At least the history of that field from 1800 on. Try to read at least 10 different sources on the history; All of the latest blogs in the field. Try to have 100 different sources here; All the basic techniques the current leading experts in the field use. Read all of their biographies or autobiographies.
3. Pick your five favorite sources in the field. For instance, if I wanted to write a novel: I’d pick my five favorite novelists. If I wanted to start a business in “local Internet” I’d pick my five favorite local Internet companies. If I wanted to blog, I’d pick my five favorite bloggers. If I wanted to be a management consultant, I’d steal directly from Peter Drucker, Jim Collins, etc.
4. Get one element that you like from each source. What element do you think stands out that makes them a success.
5. Add your own improvement. Or not. You can even start out with a direct copy and throw in your twist at the end.
6. Ignore all the haters. The more people hate you, the more money you will make. Trust me on that.
I’m hoping Mollie grows up and learns how to be just as good a thief as her dad.