Happy Friday <<First Name>>,
I've been thinking a lot about the notion of copying after posting our podcast episode with new media artist Nick Briz last Tuesday. Since copying is one of the first tools we have as creatives, I want to challenge you to copy a creative this week.
Before I explain further, I want to make a distinction between copying, which is good, stealing, which author Austin Kleon says is great, and robbery, which is unethical.
To observe someone else's work and attempt to duplicate it. Copycats get a bad name, but we do it all the time. We learn how to write an essay by using the example the teacher gives us. We learn a dance move by watching someone else do it, and by trying to mimic their steps. All tutorials do is invite us to copy the teacher so we can learn a skill. When you copy someone, you do it for the purpose of learning. Copies are rarely if ever the same quality as the original, and that is the point. Attribution is either given plainly, is obvious to observers of the work, or is evidence of a fundamental of the craft, thus is considered a matter of theory or technique. For example, if I started rapping, at this point no one would assume I invented rapping.
In one of the earliest issues of The Highwater Weekly, I wrote about stealing as a mark of a great artist. Author Austin Kleon explains that when we steal, we make something our own. For this to work, we have to ignore the primary meaning of the word 'steal' for a moment, which means to take from someone without the intention of returning. In a creative context, stealing is about incorporating multiple influences, not just one, as well as making something that improves on these originals. In this sense, Steve Jobs stole rather than copied the concept for a mouse from IBM because he didn't just make a mouse like theirs, he corrected the features that kept IBM's mouse from being commercially viable.
In other words, to make something your own, to "steal" it, you must improve on the idea significantly, and pull references from multiple places.
Robbery is the most accurate way to describe the kind of creative theft that makes people the most uncomfortable. By definition, robbery is different from stealing in that it not only involves taking something, but causing harm to the owner/originator. For creatives, this harm can include not making every effort to give proper attribution, taking an idea and then blocking the originator's ability to use it, or even the ability for the originator to profit from it. One example is the many claims independent jewelry makers have made against big-name retailers who take their designs without attribution or partnership.
To summarize, the purpose of-
Copying is to learn.
Stealing is to improve.
Robbing is to harm.
Now that we've cleared that up, feel free to copy an artist you admire this week, or even copy several and create something that is better or different from the original.
For more info on how to be an ethical creative copycat, click below to listen to my interview with artist Nick Briz.
To Creating Consciously,
Chakka AKA Black Terry Gross.