Stealing Is at the Heart of Creating Anything

By Erin Griffith , written on May 30, 2012

From The News Desk

Most of the tech world spent the afternoon listening to Nathan Myhrvold, Silicon Valley's much-maligned patent troll, who spoke at D10 to defend his practice of amassing patents and suing companies that might be violating them.

So it felt a little ironic that I spent my afternoon discussing the benefits of stealing with a group of New York coders and entrepreneurs.

Austin Kleon recently quit his day job at a digital agency to pursue writing and making art. He was able to do that thanks in part to his involvement with 20x200, a New York startup that curates and sells affordable prints. Today he spoke to a group of founders and coders at 568 Broadway, a building that's home to a gaggle of New York's cool kid startups including Foursquare, Thrillist, ZocDoc, 10gen, Fueled, Indaba, YouGift, and 20x200.

Kleon's message resonated with the creative techies and product designers from those startups. It's clear by the name of his book, called Steal Like an Artist, that Kleon operates on a different philosophy than Myhrvold's ethos of "protecting inventors." Maybe it's a point of view that is unique to scrappy builders but which dies once you enter the corporate realm.

Kleon described the way his Newspaper Blackout art was initially accused of ripping off an older artist with similar pieces. Through research, he learned his style of art had been made as early as the 1760s. He realized that nothing is completely original. "It's something a lot of artists know but aren't forthcoming about," he said. "All ideas are just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas."

His use of the word "steal" makes the point more controversial, when I think the terminology that applies to startups is "influence" or "inspire." But the underlying idea is that that nothing is completely original, and stealing is okay because you'll by necessity infuse your work with your own voice.

Apply that to open source software, which some believe will make up 99 percent of all mission critical software by 2016. Or to the wildly popular Github, where coders share and collaborate on software development. "See yourself as part of something bigger, and weave your work into that, then put it out into the world so other people can steal from you," Kleon said.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]