Creativity or Highway Robbery? The Freelancer's Guide to Ethical Stealing

  • November 25, 2020

Have you ever cracked a joke that went unnoticed, swallowed up in the din of the group’s chatter, only to have the person sitting next to you repeat it louder, and to resounding laughter? Yeah, that person probably avoided eye contact with you for a bit. Such is the way of the sticky-fingered.
That boundary between rip-off and inspiration is not always so clear. The socialization and cross-pollination of ideas is a critical element of creativity and innovation, but it can be fraught with ethical peril. What is the independent professional, perpetually seeking new ideas and solutions, to do?
As the old saying—whose origins, incidentally, are debated—goes, “talent imitates, genius steals.” The most original of creative ideas can always be traced back to some stimulus. After all, our only two ingredients for ingenuity are our experiences and knowledge. The inner workings of the mind are merely the mechanisms, or tools, by which we can sublimate knowledge or experience into a “novel idea.”
Austin Kleon expounds upon that notion in his best-selling book, “Steal Like An Artist,” arguing that no work is truly original, and that all work is founded on that which came before. This includes, without exception, the most brilliant work across disciplines, from music to fine art to advertising.
The key, Kleon counsels, is to lean into studying that work which inspires you. To learn by imitating many sources of inspiration, but to refine and identify your style, making the final product your own. Synthesize your voice from multiple influences, and give attribution where it’s due. To paraphrase the timeless, sunny wisdom of Mitch Hedberg, remix the remix.
Rosie Yakob, co-founder of Genius Steals, an itinerant strategy and innovation consultancy, embraces a pragmatic application of the philosophy behind her business’ namesake.
With respect to entrepreneurship, Yakob highlights that “it’s really important not to reinvent the wheel” and to “look to others’ knowledge” where it makes sense. The administrative and operational doldrums of running a small business, she says by way of example, aren’t always going to be your area of expertise.
Yakob places creative emphasis on “abstracting the pattern of the particular, and then applying it elsewhere,” using Legos as an analogy. Each experience becomes a building block, and “the more diverse your building blocks, the more diverse your thinking” can be. Diversify your sources of influence, and be vigilant. Inspiration can lie in wait amidst the ordinary and quotidian.
With regard to creatives preoccupied with originality, Yakob doesn’t mince words. “We believe originality is a myth. Nothing comes from nothing.” She’s right, distilling her perspective down to an existential truth. It’s all about the remix.
For freelancers encountering a range of projects and personalities that may influence their work, the challenge is to identify and operate within the intersection of useful and ethical.
Our only two ingredients for ingenuity are our experiences and our knowledge. Click To Tweet
Utility is easy enough to recognize: Whatever the exposure, a useful one helps drive the creative process, or simplifies and perhaps improves upon an idea. It clears or flattens the path to a goal. It may even serve to redefine an existing goal.
The ethicality of capitalizing on these influences can be more problematic to determine. When in doubt, conduct a gut check with yourself or your partners. It may be beneficial to run your idea through several filters:

  • The Wonka (read: The Unnecessary Remake): Am I genuinely improving upon this idea, as opposed to just rebranding it?
  • Better Call Saul: Competition is healthy—a rising tide raises all boats—but will my work directly undermine theirs, and might there be legal ramifications?
  • Shame Test: Would I mind if the public, or my mom (yikes), had full visibility into the inputs of my work?
  • Mix and Match, Part 1: If I’m borrowing a process, does it achieve a unique goal?
  • Mix and Match, Part 2: Conversely, if my goal or desired output is “borrowed,” am I applying my own process to achieve it?


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