When Is Copying Not Plagiarism? The Lines Are Somewhat Blurred

"Good artists copy, great artists steal" was a quote famously uttered by Steve Jobs, who attributed it to Pablo Picasso. But, like many aphorisms like it, the quote has many origin stories. So, who really was the original creator? Well, it's complicated.

According to Quote Investigator, a possible precursor to the quote was written by W. H. Davenport Adams, who was writing gushingly about the poet Alfred Tennyson. He wrote: “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.” It must be said that Adams added the quotation marks and had it displayed in bold font himself, considering the phrase to be "canon." Of course, this idea is almost the antithesis to the line that one of the creative geniuses behind Apple repeated. However, about 30 years later, T.S. Elliot somewhat turns it on its head by writing this: "...Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal..."

I'm not writing this to give you the history of the quote, you can go to Quote Investigator to get a much more comprehensive and well-researched version than I could ever give you. The reason I write this is to illustrate that all art, all ideas, are born from those before them. Especially in a world saturated with information, it is almost impossible to be truly unique. And, as Tony and Chelsea Northrup explain in their video, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact most experienced photographers will tell you to go out and try to recreate what inspires you. But don't just do that, use the skills learned from doing that to create something from your own mind. There is no doubt that whatever you create on your own will be an amalgamation of other ideas and art that has seeped into your mind, either consciously or subconsciously. In saying all that, there is a problem in the photography industry in particular where the lines between copyright infringement and transformative work get blurred all too often.  

There are two specific instances which are not so blurry, though. First, please don't steal other people's art and try to pass it off as your own. Second, for the love of Mike, don't use art created by someone else to sell your product without the express permission of the creator.

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5 Comments

Just google “Vermeer girl with the pearl earring” and see how “original” a “photo copy” is…
It’s almost impossible to be original. Over 300 million photos a day get uploaded to Facebook so chances are some of them will be similar to the ones we take.
To me there is a difference between using actual images taken by others and creating your own images that might end up looking like something someone else made before you. I’ve seen many images, many paintings, many movies, television shows, YouTube videos and some of them will inspire me without me even knowing which exact sources influenced the results I come up with.

Kirk Darling's picture

I take issue with their use of the phrase "take inspiration." Slavishly imitating an image is not "taking inspiration." It's "slavishly imitating."

No artist's style has ever been copyrighted. No pose has ever been copyrighted. Fifteen photographers can stand next to each other pointed at the Statue of Liberty and they will turn out with very similar images--none of them slavishly imitating.

Those aren't issues.

Mike O'Leary's picture

The point they're making about imitation is that it's an effective and efficient way to learn techniques. Many artists copy other works for this reason. It's a means to an end, not an ultimate goal.

Marc lamey's picture

@Tony I got 8K€ for one plagiarized, if you want the court case let me know.

I wrote a novel once. As it sat in my hard drive, I decided to take a break and pick up some light reading in the library. The book I chose to read was basically my novel! Of course there were differences, but it was so similar that if I hadn't written my book later, I might have thought the author plagiarized mine! And if I had, after all that work, tried to publish, I would have been accused of plagiarism. Human minds work in a remarkably similar manner, and come up with similar ideas. It's a game of who came up with it first.