Why Stealing Other People’s Stuff Has Got to Stop
For years now I have seen a normal and essential part of the creative process going underground and it makes me sad and, sometimes, outraged.
This normal and essential creative process is called claiming your lineage. It’s about standing on the shoulders of those from whom you have learned, your teachers and mentors, the authors and filmmakers and artists and friends who have informed you, and when you use those influences in what you create it, acknowledging them.
In the scientific fields, everybody knows that, if they are lucky, they will add one tiny new bit to their field. And that new bit will be firmly anchored in all that went before. They aren’t expected to recreate the entire field of biology, for example.
But in the spiritual, self-help, coach world – and I see it in the writing world too and perhaps you see it in your field? – people are obsessed with being original, acting as if their ideas have sprung fully formed out of their heads, like Athena from Zeus.
It’s as if your work doesn’t have worth unless it’s wholly unique and has never been seen before.
Which is absurd because it’s impossible.
This pretense to originality-out-of-nowhere leads to so much suffering. I think it’s partially what – in addition to believing he had to create more content than is humanly possible – led to writer Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace. It blocks people from creating freely because they think they have to make it all up – and nobody can do that!
It stops people from doing great work in the world because they don’t know how to make what they do sound special and unique (yet they do spends thousands on trying to come up with a cute tagline and wonderful logo).
I think this pretense partially leads people to outright steal other’s ideas and claim them as one’s own. To pretend that changing the words of someone’s work, adding your own cute terms, makes it yours. Or that an idea someone gave you came to you in a vision. Or that changing a few words of someone’s course makes it yours.
Of course, there is this thing called the collective mind. People come up with similar ideas at the same time – it’s happened to me many times. Sometimes I was first to market (The Woman’s Comfort Book) other times not (YogaWriting). Sometimes, it doesn’t matter who is first – I do my best to develop my own art and I reach out to whomever else is doing similar work so we can support each other.
Also, let’s be clear: we all steal. We mostly don’t mean to but we are story-making animals, human magpies picking up a bit of this or a bit of that, weaving something new. Plus we’re forgetful. We forget where we learned things and we rewrite history.
Case in point: Jeffrey Davis and I had an email exchange about this very subject a few months ago. I wrote this post, then wanted to quote him in it because I vaguely remembered a brilliant email from him. I found the email (after I wrote), and went
“Holy crap! He mentioned Jonah Lehrer in his email and some of the same ideas! Did I steal this post from him?”
But when I checked in with myself, I trusted that I had been having the same thoughts independent of Jeffrey (at least that’s what my memory tells me which is highly unreliable) so to be sure, I wanted to cite him here as a big influence.
Finally, the internet has created a hyper-fast, hyper-fluid learning soup, making it far easier to pick up an idea or a phrase without consciously knowing you did. It gets tucked into your brain and becomes yours. Or you immediately combine it with another idea and make something new, which is grand and amazing, but then the original sources get forgotten. Or as Jeffrey said in that erudite email:
“Musicians sample, poets ‘steal,’ and writers playfully recycle other writers’ work to make the point that nothing’s original + the online blogging culture hallows generosity of spirit as the ultimate virtue (See David Shields). Danny Brown had a post last year that showed how an ad campaign had blatantly stolen the concept and even execution of an independent video. The Greek chorus commentary was all over the place in their responses/opinions.”
My point isn’t that we shouldn’t borrow but rather that we shouldn’t pretend to be Athena nor should we blatantly steal (no really, that’s not obvious to some people). It’s fearful, small-minded and not good for the commons. Plus it’s unnecessary.
Here’s some thoughts on what you and I could do instead:
- Show your lineage: name your sources. When you teach, write, in resource documents, in liner notes, on a special “who influences me page” on your website, in conversation, shout out to everyone who has helped you form your ideas. Be loud and proud.
- Support your sources. Buy their work.
- If you think someone stole from you, contact them, by phone if possible, and assume the best. So few people are truly out to steal knowingly, and the people who are often immediately adopt a veneer of denial which anger won’t budge.
- Never accuse someone publicly of stealing. I have seen this done on Facebook and on blogs, and I think it’s bad form. It’s using your power to shame, and sometimes, what you see as stealing or non-attribution is actually the Zeitgeist or as Jeffrey said, “a matter of flattering influence” or your ego out of control. Pointing fingers only make you look like a bully.
- Be grateful. Bow to all that has informed you, uplifted you. Send prayers. Send thank-you notes.
I realize this is a big issue with many points of view and sometimes all that debate obscures a simple point: Be loud and proud about who influences you. Be generous with your support. And do your thing whether it’s unique or not. Okay? Okay.
Editor’s Note: Need a little extra help freeing yourself from your limiting beliefs? Check out the Ultimate Virtual Retreat from Jen Louden!
Originally published here.