Inspiration vs. Imitation

Joel Anderson


“Good artists copy, great artists steal” – Steve Jobs.

Or was it Steve Jobs quoting Pablo Picasso? Or no, wait – It was Picasso quoting Igor Stravinsky adapting a William Faulkner quote that was adapted from a T.S. Elliot quote… Or something.

Ironic, isn’t it?

Most of the time, the concepts of borrowing and stealing are pretty cut and dry, right? Sugar from your neighbor? Borrowing. Those nice towels from your hotel? Stealing. This analogy is flimsy at best, but try to stay with me.

How do we apply these concepts to art? Of course, a legal incarnation of this dilemma is intellectual property law. A nuanced and complex topic, but the central idea is that fruits of the mental labor are considered property, and provided the same protection as those hotel towels via a system of patents, copyrights© and trademarks®™. But let’s put legality aside for a moment and consider the ethical implications here.

Inspiration is good. It’s what keeps us motivated and evolving. It’s what cultivates and perpetuates trends – until we get inspired to move on to the next thing. The cues we take from other people’s work help us push our own work further. We use that collective knowledge both consciously and subconsciously as a base for what we perceive as “good.” That is, of course, until we look at it years later with disgust.

Imitation, on the other hand, is bad. Imitation without adaptation leaves no room for advancement or any contribution to the artistic field, since it’s just a reproduction of something that’s already been done.

All forms of art are subject to this. Music is a big one. Websites like will tell you exactly where a piece of music originated. Whether subconscious or not, a surprising number of artists have used other musicians work. Sometimes acknowledging the fact, or sometimes just passing it off as their own. Inspiration or imitation?

How about this quote: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” A quote that the internet says dates back to the 19th century, which I know is definitely true – because, the internet. Not completely sold on the idea, though. Seems like you are telling the hotel they should be flattered that you stole their towels. Oscar Wilde took a better stab at this when he (apparently) said “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” OK, that makes more sense. Thanks, Oscar. Moving on.

Coincidentally,…or maybe not – this idea and the presentation of it is nothing new. Kirby Ferguson’s video series “Everything is a Remix” proves this point much better than I am doing here. You should go watch it. All four parts are equally interesting.

Source: Kirby Ferguson; (SEE! Attribution. Nice.)

Hopefully, though, I’ve put enough of my own spin on this concept to qualify this post as inspiration. Borrowing ideas – like sugar from my neighbor – from those before me.

The bottom line is innovation and evolution in pretty much every facet of life – technology, healthcare, transportation – depends on building off of what we know, shifting the pieces around, adding something new and putting it back together in a way that is better than the way it was before. That’s how we got where we are now. That’s how we’ll get where we’ll be tomorrow. The important thing, though, is that we are improving and advancing our craft. We can separate inspiration and imitation, as long as we’re cognizant of where our ideas come from. Buy your own damn towels, and the creative world will be a better place.™

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