godin

QWA-category-Borrow

Writer Seth Godin explains why it’s absolutely fine if you steal his ideas … you have to promise to make them better.

Please don’t steal my car.

If you drive away with it, I won’t have it any more, which is a real hassle.

Please don’t steal my identity or my reputation either. Neither travels well, and all the time you’re using it, you’re degrading something that belongs to me.

But my ideas? Sure, yes, please, by all means, take them.

The scarcity underlying the industrial economy (what’s not yours is mine) has pushed us to make a mistake about ideas. If everyone in town comes to my plant and takes a free sample of what I make, I’ll go bankrupt. But if everyone in the world takes a free sample of one of my ideas (or at least one of my good ones), we’ll all get richer.

I got an email from a reader last week. She was spitting angry at another blogger and wanted me to lower the hammer on him. According to my loyal reader, he had plagiarized many of my ideas, writing one post after another that, while not using my words, clearly demonstrated to her that he was hunting on my land.

Not true, I assured her. He hadn’t plagiarized anything, he had built something new, by synthesizing ideas and experiences to invent the next step, a step available to all of us.

It’s not my land. It’s ours. And no one is hunting… If anything, we’re farming, and all the cross-pollination going on helps everyone.

How dare we criticize an inventor or an author or a leader for, “stealing someone else’s ideas.” Ideas can’t be stolen, because ideas don’t get smaller when they’re shared, they get bigger.

It’s not my land. It’s ours. And no one is hunting… If anything, we’re farming, and all the cross-pollination going on helps everyone.

That’s one reason why the rise of patent trolling among otherwise upstanding innovators is so troubling. The patent troll uses the specter of long, drawn-out litigation to extort money from completely innocent entrepreneurs. The patent troll is selfish, spinning out untruths for personal profit — he belongs under a bridge somewhere, not on stage or on our bookshelf. The chilling effect of this mistaken understanding of the moral and legal implications of idea theft is huge.

What patent trolls won’t talk about, because they have no standing and no proof, is the fact that an expensive, bureaucratic patent system does nothing at all to increase the likelihood that new ideas will be created and most important, that new productivity will arise. Patents weren’t developed to protect ideas (ideas can’t be patented) but the specific execution of useful innovations.

Trolls and their copyright-defending brethren would like to amplify a cultural shift, one that’s left over from the days of Henry Ford and Frank Sinatra. They’d like people to be afraid to steal ideas. We don’t need to shun those that steal ideas. We need to chastise those that think that this is a problem.

Matt Ridley has famously pointed out that no one knows how to make a computer mouse. You need the assembled talents of a metallurgist, a plastics specialist, someone in supply chain management, a software whiz, etc. The productivity of our generation isn’t the productivity of the efficient assembly line (that’s old school). No, our productivity is the productivity of connection.

The connection economy steps in just as the glory days of the industrial age begin to fade. The connection economy rewards coordination, sharing and trust. All three of which are built on our species’ unique ability to steal ideas.

The connection economy steps in just as the glory days of the industrial age begin to fade.

When two people meet on the dance floor, an exchange of ideas takes place. My move, your move. When two people play chess, they each get a little smarter. And when a chef joins another in the kitchen, the unspoken exchange of ideas moves the state of the art forward.

Is it theft to put raw fish on seasoned rice? What about serving a pizza grilled on coals without crediting Al Forno in Rhode Island? At what point can we stop calling it stealing and start calling it merely delicious?

There is, of course, a difference between stealing and passing off. When you pretend that those taken words are your words, you’re no longer taking an idea — you’re taking an implementation. When you pretend that you are the originator, the original source, and you’re not, you’ve corrupted your work by claiming authorship, when you are merely contributing synthesis. This hurts your reputation as well as the person you stole from, because our society values authorship and origination.

The amazing thing about giving credit, though, is you never run out. Like ideas, the more credit is shared, the more it can be worth, to the giver and to the recipient.

Last thing: With the ability to steal comes responsibility. Not just the responsibility to synthesize something better than what you started with, but the obligation to relentlessly seek out the next thing worth stealing. We’ve created a bucket line. Our economy is a long line of people handing ideas up and down the line, improving and customizing at each step. When you stop seeking and merely consume, you let us all down.

And yes, sure, please steal this idea. But make it better first, okay?

Seth Godin is a relentless blogger, a teacher and an entrepreneur. Questions Worth Asking” is a TED editorial series; this week we asked the question, “Can I borrow that?” to dig into themes of cross-disciplinary innovation and idea-sharing. See also a story about SkyBox Imaging, a company using unexpected technology to build a new type of satellite, and an interview with Suzanne Lee, who’s mixing science, fashion and kombucha to extraordinary effect.

Join the conversation! 15 Comments

  1. I just reposted your stealing blog to the Great March for Climate Action conversation where there is a vigorous debate going on about the power of alliances to make change. Many well-established environmental organizations are remaining in their silos at a time when the IPCC report warns of serious consequences to inaction.

    When asked: “why when concerned with image management (arguably as important as they seem to think it is), that they only very loosely associate with other climate projects. For all they know, our climate march might crumble or start trouble or make a fool of climate activism in one way or another, and they cannot afford to have their brand name (psychologically speaking), stamped on our tag.”-Marcher 1

    To which March 2 responded, “Competition between orgs and lack of mutual support is a silly reason to let the planet and its inhabitants suffer. ”

    Stealing for causes and ideas in exchange for credit uplevels all of humanity.

  2. “Good artists copy, great artists steal” – Pablo Picasso.

    Thank you so much for this post. It’s a breath of fresh air in an era of ongoing debates and patent wars. Ideas aren’t commodities to be hoarded. They’re a part of the commons like our natural resources.

  3. Seth is the first idea-spreading, digital linguist for which I’ve developed an all-around adoration and respect for. Not only did his writing inspire much of my evolution as a digital marketer, but more recently some of that influence trickled into my daily reality through the reignition of my passion for writing. He is a valuable asset to thinkers near-and-far, as well as a contributing factor driving me to refocus my lifelong passion for writing and knowledge towards a much more involved and public display. I’m halfway done my first contribution to narrative nonfiction and I will be sending him a copy with a post-it note stating “thank you.”

    -Zach Bennett // On a mission to go from unknown to known-one

  4. I like it. Spread good cheer and we all grow. Just give credit when it is due and hope people expand on it.

  5. As usual; interesting thoughts. I truly value the ideas those who know more than me are willing to share. In addition, being able to parse those thoughts, weave them into something different with parts of each still intact in the fabric, then deliver them in a new way is what I strive to do with each new blog post or course I teach.

  6. Everything is a remix

  7. Thanks Seth for sharing this. Actually as a trainer for oratory and presentation technique I stole a lot of your ideas – people always ask me, how to become better presenters and I tell them you gotta be like pirates: steel from everybody, keep what you consider valuable for yourself and anything else just throw it overboard! … but you gotta be decent and tell the others “You know I stole this from XY, because he’s a cool thinker and I value his ideas”!

  8. The connection economy steps in just as the glory days of the industrial age begin to fade. The connection economy rewards coordination, sharing and trust.

  9. “You ask me if I keep a notebook to record my great ideas. I’ve only ever had one.” Albert Einstein

    It’s all about sharing and connecting.

  10. “But my ideas? Sure, yes, please, by all means, take them…. Ideas can’t be stolen, because ideas don’t get smaller when they’re shared, they get bigger….When you pretend that you are the originator, the original source, and you’re not, you’ve corrupted your work by claiming authorship, when you are merely contributing synthesis. This hurts your reputation as well as the person you stole from, because our society values authorship and origination. The amazing thing about giving credit, though, is you never run out. Like ideas, the more credit is shared, the more it can be worth, to the giver and to the recipient.”

    I can’t say that I wholly agree with this article, simply for the use of the word “steal.” To steal is to claim ownership over something that doesn’t belong to you. Yet, Godin contradicts himself in his rally to get everyone to steal from one another when he says we should still give credit so as to preserve our reputations and to acknowledge authorship. Wouldn’t the better term be to “borrow” instead? Plagiarism tarnishes reputations, and the message this article sends only confuses where the line is drawn in terms of ownership and what the worth of an idea truly is.

    Give credit where credit is due. You don’t steal cars or CDs or identities because of the reverberations. Not only is it against the law to do so, but stealing victimizes someone. Why then would you want to steal someone else’s ideas if you wouldn’t want your own stolen from you? Godin’s suggestion implies that there is no value to what someone thinks and this is clearly not the case. Ownership, while not always clear in a historical context, has at least been granted when possible, so why should that change with the advent of the Internet and social media?

  11. Yes! I’m always telling my children ideas are for sharing. That is how we mature and develop our own ideas by using others’ as a springboard. Doesn’t a writer become good at her craft by reading and absorbing others’ words? Or an artist by studying, looking and understanding what others have created before her. At school we call it magpieing, but really it’s just learning; opening your ears and eyes to what others have to teach you.

  12. My only question after reading this is where can I go and post my ideas? Where can I leave them to be scrutinized by people in their respective fields of study? Hopefully an open sourced internet think tank of some sort that isn’t plagued by trolls?

  13. Another Godin gem! I highly recommend reading the publication by Austin Kleon, “Steal Like An Artist”. Sounds to me like Seth may have read the same book, and perhaps “stole” some ideas for his own narrative!

  14. I love ideas. I have hundreds or thousands that just lie around in my head. What I HATE is how this society has so intricately tied “ideas” to “dollars”. Being 55 and autistic, money is always a concern but ideas…ideas are like air and water to me and I HATE that thoughts of “can I use this to support myself” come into my head because the answer is “no”. I live, primarily, in my head. I have little models and prototypes of various things, but other than that, once I perceive, troubleshoot and finalize an idea in my head, I’m done unless a new use for it crops up, within another idea. Sometimes I hate “society”. I was never able to do anything “right”, according to “society”, even when I DID do it right. No matter how “right” something was, it was always criticized as “wrong” – even by those who would take those “wrong ideas” for themselves. Sometimes I wonder how mankind is able to even feed himself and tie his own shoes, with such an illogical perspective of feeling justified in crushing the souls of those they perceive as “defective”, simply because they have an idea worth having. I’m going to start a blog and just start putting my ideas out there. They are of no use to me – other than as an escapist activity – in a society such as this. If someone wants to patent one or copyright something I write, fine. Screw it. You’re right. I’d rather be homeless and happy than be like “them”. First step… http://takeitandmakeityours.blogspot.com/

  15. We were all taught by our parents to share but we tend to forget. Nobody can operate in a vacuum. Great post!

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