Sunday, November 1, 2020

Idea Theft!!!

I run across this in photography from time to time, and ran across it again recently: the accusation that somebody stole someone else's idea.

There are a couple of themes to explore here.

The first is that, as far as I know, people generally don't want to steal other people's ideas. Other people are idiots. However, everyone thinks that everyone else wants to steal their ideas. I saw this constantly in the software industry we must take great pains to conceal our intellectual property from our competition!

My retort was always to point out that if they published their code on their web site we would not even deign to download it. We know about them. They are idiots and their ideas are all shit. They no doubt offer us the same courtesy, and could not care less about our ideas. This is not quite literally true, we probably would have downloaded their code if they had published it, but we definitely would not have spent any substantive time examining it; and the reverse is also true.

Maybe there are working artists so desperate for ideas that they'd steal other people's stuff? I don't know, I only know me. But I know that I don't want anyone else's ideas, and it's not because I am pure or honest, it's because I genuinely think your ideas are trash. I assume you think mine are as well, and you wouldn't steal my ideas if broke into your house and left them in your kitchen.

Anyways, that's human nature.

So, why do we see things that look like they could be copies? Or derived one from the other?

Science and math have been dealing with this for centuries. It is not rare, it is in fact common, normal, for the same idea to crop up multiple times at more or less the same time. Sorting out priority is a well-established procedure. In Art it does not seem to be established at all, probably because the stakes are non-existent.

Anyways, it turns out that when a bunch of humans with similar training are hanging out in more or less the same intellectual stew they come up with more or less the same ideas, pretty often. It just happens.

Genuinely new ideas, those wild leaps out of nowhere, are incredibly rare.

Most new ideas are, in hindsight, pretty obvious combinations of A with B, or an equally obvious incremental change to C. We all have the same As, Bs, and Cs to play with. We all have the same set of tools for combining and incrementing. Of course we come up with the same shit. In Math, either someone definitely came up with it first, or we agree to co-author an article and we try to combine the best bits of our two approaches. In Chemistry they just split the Nobel.

If you definitely came up with it first, then my paper turns into "Some extensions and improved notation for a Theorem of Wossname" and I better make it good because it's not going to be easy to place. So it goes.

In Art, you jump on twitter and whine real loud about everything, and whichever artist has more social stature with the gatekeepers wins, The End. Your friends circle the wagons, agree loudly that you are right, and pet you. None of which does you any good at all.

Photographers don't seem to realize that everyone's playing with the same As, Bs, and Cs, and the same tools for going forward. They tend to think superficial similarities are clear signs of plagiarism when someone else does it. Of course, when the roles are reversed the phenomenon of parallel discovery is all too clear, and anyways mine is totally different I don't see any similarities what are you on about?

Of course it's easy to see similarities when someone accidentally replicates something that you think is important and that you worked hard at.

I worked very hard in Photoshop to get those muddy tones! He copied me!

Err, yes, I see the similarity in tonality, but his is about refugees and yours is about dogs?

Waahhhhh! He stole my idea!!!

From the outside, especially if you've spent any substantial time actually trying to have original thoughts inside a active intellectual sphere, it's obvious to you that these two ideas are neither one plagiarised from the other. They don't overlap all that much, although they share some accidental bits and pieces (likely because both artists lifted those bits from some other sources.)

Anyways, why are you so bereft about having your idea stolen?

I, at any rate, have far more ideas than I can execute. I get stuck, to be sure, but it's invariably in execution.

I dunno, maybe that's just me. Maybe if I had more time and energy to devote to executing artistic ideas I'd run the well dry?


  1. Not THAT Ross CameronNovember 2, 2020 at 1:50 AM

    Considering just about everything in art is at least derivative of earlier art, it’s mostly hot air to me.

    Still, the music business has had a good crack at it, given the number of copyright infringement and related cases. Just see the one re Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven vs Spirit’s Taurus. Been some similar ones in Australia too.

    1. And music, despite the drawn out nature of the big suits, has it easier! You can at least identify runs of notes or intervals that are the same or similar in a very quantifiable way.

      See also words.

      Photos? It's always "My project on temporary workers in grocery stores got stolen by a guy who did a project on temporary workers in coal mines!"

      But everyone's thinking about temporary workers these days, dude, and the projects look nothing alike, and coal mines aren't grocery stores?

      But still, all the friends of the artists will circle the wagons and tweet angrily.

  2. Señor Bush is being uncharacteristically coy regarding the id of the alleged transgressor.

  3. I wish I could come up with ideas worth stealing.

  4. I would be happy if someone stole one of my ideas.

  5. Man, that's one bitchin zine. Where'd you steal the idea?

    1. Japanese "provoke" by way of butturini's "London"

    2. So "butturini" is now lower case. Interesting.