Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal – Igor Stravinsky

Now it has to be said this quotation is not without a degree of controversy. Igor Stravinsky may have said it, but Pablo Picasso, TS Eliot and Steve Jobs certainly said something like it, and they all probably got it from WH Davenport Adams who in the late nineteenth century had a made a special study of Alfred Tennyson’s poetry and its relationship with the works of other writers.

But ignoring for the moment the irony about how this aphorism about plagiarism came about, the basic idea implicit in it is the contrast between ‘borrowing’ as slavish imitation that actually diminishes both the original and the imitator, and ‘stealing’ which should result in the significant enhancement of the original artist’s work. To cite a famous example: are the opening bars of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord a straight lift of The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine? Or did George magnificently enhance and build upon a riff he’d heard, consciously or unconsciously?

In business, where real competitive advantage is hard to find and even harder to maintain, imitation often results in mindless superficiality (Just why do sales people in Dixons wear expensive headphones?) or brutal price-based market share smash-and-grab. Consider how Samsung built its leading position in electronics by fast-following Sony, consistently offering more features for less money. Today a very different Samsung is squaring up to Apple and this time it’s about intellectual property as much as price.

Steve Jobs of course has interesting form on the question of property. Here’s what he said a few years ago on PBS in The Triumph of the Nerds:

Ultimately, it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done …and then to try to bring those things in to what you’re doing. I mean, Picasso had a saying…he said good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.

What Steve Jobs did with the iPod is a great example. So much of what became the Apple iPod system already existed, but what Jobs did was to bring it all together, add fantastic consumer understanding and superb design to take the nerdy old MP3player into the global mainstream.

Unfortunately, there are those with less passion for genuine innovation than Steve Jobs who have been quick to adopt the neo-Jobsian rallying cry of ‘Steal with pride!’ to justify an epidemic of tweaking and copying. But unless your sole raison d’être is price, like some firm flogging knock-off Louis Vuitton handbags, the real innovation challenge will be to enhance and improve what you see around you and to combine it in a way that reflects your own purpose and unique brand voice.

Precept:

Look at your innovation pipeline. Are you stealing with pride or just cashing in? Do have a vision that enhances what is unique about your offer to the world and yet is open to the best of what others are doing? What is your innovation added value?

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