What did Steve Jobs mean when he referenced, “Good artists copy, Great artists steal”

Wed, Mar 3, 2010

Featured, News

The following video of Steve Jobs, shot during the 1996 filming of “Triumph of the Nerds” has been getting a lot of traction today in light of Apple’s lawsuit against HTC for allegedly infringing on 20 of Apple’s patents.

In the video below, Jobs references a quote from Picasso and states, “Good artists copy, great artists steal. And we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Meanwhile, in Apple’s press release yesterday, Steve Jobs explained why Apple is suing HTC:

We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it. We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.

So what’s the verdict, folks? Is Jobs a hypocrite? One minute he’s bragging about Apple’s penchant for stealing ideas and now he’s suing HTC for stealing Apple’s?

Or are we totally missing the thrust of what Jobs is getting at?

To figure that out, we’ll first have to drill down and figure out what exactly Picasso was trying to say.

Many artists have interpreted Picasso’s quote to mean that to copy a painting, for example, is to simply copy what you see without bringing your own perspective and original ideas to the table. What stealing refers to, however, is when you copy the inspiration that fueled the development of the original, but also infuse your own perspective and take on things into an entirely new creation.

Meanwhile, an old MacObserver post from 1999 sums up Picasso’s quote as used by Jobs thusly:

“Picasso hardly meant that great artists steal popular designs whose original source is known to everyone. What Picasso did mean was that great artists rummage through the great junk heap of lost, bypassed, and forgotten ideas to find the rare jewels, and then incorporate such languishing gems into their own personal artistic legacy.”

In other words, when Picasso and Jobs use the word “steal”, are they really referring to a “theft of concept as opposed to a theft of implementation (i.e copying)? Are we misconstruing the spirit of Jobs’ statement in an overzealous effort to label him a hippocrite, or are we pulling semantic hairs in an attempt to defend him?

We’ll go ahead and assert that the way Jobs intended the word “steal” to be interpreted in the video above and in the recent Apple press release are completely different. In the former, ‘steal’ seems to take on a more abstract definition, whereas in the latter, it seems to imply, you guessed it, flat out copying.

The following quote from Thomas Stephen is particularly insightful:

So, what do Picasso and T.S. Eliot mean? They say, in the briefest of terms: take old work to a new place. Steal the Google site, strip down what works (fast load, nonexistent graphics, small quirky changes that delight) and use the parts on your own site. Look at the curve of a Coke Bottle and create a beautiful landscape painting with it. Take the hairline pinstriping on the side of somebody’s car, reimagine it on your print job. Find inspiration in the world you live in, where nothing is truly new so that everything has the potential to be innovative.

Love him or hate him, but Steve Jobs genuinely cares about creating products that can change the world, and the folks at Apple undoubtedly derive their inspiration from the world at large – a fact abundantly clear anytime you hear Jonathan Ive talk about Apple’s design process. From Jobs perspective, the same apparently can’t be said about HTC.


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8 Comments For This Post

  1. tom Says:

    stealing is stealing, whether big or small, whether well known or forgotten

    sure, Steve is a hypocrite. it goes with the turf. Apple, while many may dream so, is not a philanthropy, it is not a charitable enterprise.

    isn’t virtually any idea built upon the ideas of others.

    Steve gets the job done. The original idea holders didn’t. If they ask, it might be nice to give them a few shares though.

    and, it might be nice to be consistent. why can one company, Apple, be glorified for incorporating the ideas of others and another be villified?

  2. meh Says:

    you would only patent something that you assume to be significant enough that stealing it would matter. look through some of the patents and tell me which of these “innovations” are worthy of protecting, and which are just there so they can serve childish infringement suits later

  3. Stenar Says:

    By “stealing,” I think Jobs meant taking a concept and improving upon it. The MP3 player wasn’t invented by Apple, but they “stole” the idea and made the world’s best MP3 player. They didn’t steal the proprietary software or way the MP3 player actually worked. Google and others have stolen actual functionality of how the iPhone works, not just the general idea of a smartphone.

  4. Brett Says:

    I think the quote is inherently confusing, and therefore unfortunate as it can easily be twisted by to put Steve Jobs in the worst possible light. This quote will haunt him and give Apple’s critics another way to spawn hatred.

    Irrespective of the loaded word “steal”, I think that Apple, rather than blatantly copying the successful work of others, more often than not, tends to mine ideas and concepts that no one else is perceptive or bold enough to exploit. Only after Apple refines, integrates, implements, and perfects to show the world what is possible, do the competitors come out with their unimaginative copies.

    Not everything Apple does is 100% original. All development is built on the work of what came before. But in cases where Apple is the first to uniquely embody specific technological features in an actual product, they have obtained patents for what in retrospect now seems obvious.

  5. KenC Says:

    It’s metaphorical. Picasso was referring to some artists, aka good, whose work is nothing more than copying. They take an idea and repeat it ad nauseum, adding nothing to pushing the concept forward.

    Great artists, according to Picasso, take an idea, and own it, aka steal. Pushing that idea so far that others no longer remember that you got the initial inspiration elsewhere. You’ve taken the idea so far that people think you own it. That’s what “steal” means.

  6. Richard Says:

    Let’s put this in perspective:

    1. Apple invented the personal computer (or was the first company to create one) with the Apple I and II. Others came after and stole the idea.

    2. Apple invented the PDA (Newton). Palm and others came after and stole the idea.

    3. Apple was the first company to commercialize the graphical user interface, and the use of a mouse (Xerox invented this idea in research but did not commercialized it). Others came after and stole that too.

    4. Apple was the first one to use SCSI, the first one to use a mouse, the first Laser Printer (Laserwriter), the first to dump the floppy disk, the first to use 3.5 floppies (instead of large ones), on and on and on Apple has been first.

    5. Now they are successful with the MP3 player and the iPhone, like no other company has been, due to their originality, design, and genius …

    Do you really expect Apple to keep giving away ideas ??
    IT IS ABOUT TIME Apple fights against companies that copy their ideas.


    I suggest to all these other so called “companies” to start investing in research and come up with their own stuff.

  7. Doug Says:

    Um… how old was that video? You’re taking something that was said over 20 years ago and acting like Steve Jobs said it yesterday. Remember he had more hair back then, kind of like me. 😉

    Apple gets sued on a daily basis and I’m sure they’ve been suing others as well over the years. This is the reality of our world. Intellectual property is aggressively fought over, especially in the States.

    Apple has also been stealing ideas just as much as everyone else. The difference is, they know what to do with them once they have them. Other companies are just poor at marketing their ideas, and that it makes them look like copy cats.

    In Apple’s defense they really do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to innovating and evolving current technologies. They rewrote the smart phone market and they’ll do it again for tablet PCs. They didn’t invent the wheel, they made it better.

  8. viralk Says:

    Guys… IDEA… NOT execution…

    A patent is for an execution… whereas an idea you cannot patent…

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