On Austin Kleon’s “Steal like an Artist”

I first heard about Kevin Kleon and its book “Steal like an Artist” it was when reading 100% Stuck in Plastic. It looked one very interesting book full of great ideas. Now that I have read it I can say that it is such a book. Even though there were a few parts I found less interesting because they do not fit with my personnality, I think it is a really great book. The title is controversial and I fully agree with the message the author wants to convey. The secret key to creativity is being inspired by many things. There is no genius that will come with a great idea on his own because we are not the result of ourselves but of the influence of others.

However I have one negative criticism about this book. I think it is a good thing to use a controversial title but at the same time I think “steal” is not an appropriate word. Try to Google “steal” and you will find the following definition:

Steal: take (another person’s property) without permission or legal right and without intending to return it.

Though “steal” can also be defined as a synonym of “plagiarism”, its main definition is the one above. In my opinion one cannot steal an idea because one cannot own an idea. If I take someone’s idea, even without permission or legal right, there is no relevance to whether I intend to return it or not because the person who has been “stolen” has not lost the idea. Indeed copying is not theft: a pure idea cannot be stolen, it can only be copied. I would not have used as much the word “steal” throughout the book because it is not theft we are talking about. For example at some point he made a very good definition of copying by first defining what plagiarism is:

Plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering

But a few pages later there is a comparison of how to do “good theft” and “bad theft”.

Good Theft vs. Bad Theft
Honor vs. Degrade
Study vs. Skim
Steal from many vs. Steal from one
Credit vs. Plagiarize
Transform vs. Imitate
Remix vs. Rip off

I think it would have been far more appropriate to use “copying” and “plagiarism”, especially after having given a wonderful definition of what copying is all about. Using a controversial tone is good to appeal people that may not agree with the message but once the subject has been introduced and we have stated what we are really talking about, there is no need to use this kind of controversial tone anymore. Let’s call a spade a spade.

So why am I being so picky? I could have forgiven all that if there was not something important missing from the book: a word about the Creative Commons licenses. In my opinion the natural conclusion to this book is: use Creative Commons licenses! If not only copying is a good thing to do, but is also what every artist actually do, then let’s encourage it by getting rid of these awful “All rights reserved” and let’s embrace sharing. If creation is mostly about copying, then in my opinion the ones encouraging it should allow others to safely do it. The minimum would have been mentioning CC licenses, but publishing the book with such a license would have made the message fully convincing by saying: “Hey you can copy me too!”


To finish here’s a few additional quotes I particularly like:

Copy your heroes

You don’t put yourself online only because you have something to say—you can put yourself online to find something to say.

You don’t have to live anywhere other than the place you are to start connecting with the world you want to be in. If you feel stuck somewhere, if you’re too young or too old or too broke, or if you’re somehow tied down to a place, take heart. There’s a community of people out there you can connect with.

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