"Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal"

This is the most famous version of the concept described by so many great artists, yet, as a designer/artist, I'm not sure how I would explain it.

The general concept can be traced back to many great artists throughout recent history:

"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." - poet T. S. Eliot

“Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal.” - Lionel Trilling

“Lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” - Igor Stravinsky

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” - Pablo Picasso (according to Steve Jobs)

It seems to me that the word "steal" implies plagiarism, which certainly could not make for a great artist nor designer?

How is this saying explained and supported from the standpoint of an artist and/or designer?

  • 3
    Can anyone confirm a citation for Pablo Picasso? It would be nice to be able to remove the "According to Steve Jobs" May 8, 2014 at 4:36
  • 2
    Inspiration, not replication :)
    – Scott
    May 8, 2014 at 9:12
  • 2
    The quote can be found as the first quote at pablopicasso.org/quotes.jsp Obviously that doesn't mean it's true; it probably got repeated a lot.
    – gnasher729
    May 8, 2014 at 10:17
  • 3
    It's a little ironic Steve Jobs said that when Apple has the more lawsuits against other companies for patent infringement then any other.
    – Amicable
    May 8, 2014 at 15:03
  • 1
    I think a statement that captures the same mentality but is much easier to justify is, "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants". Direct reuse is unarguably wrong. Using prior work as an basis for moving forward is something commendable. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standing_on_the_shoulders_of_giants May 9, 2014 at 15:18

9 Answers 9


I've always interpreted this as a more literal reference to the possession that "stealing" implies. If you've truly stolen something, then it is no longer owned by anyone else. Nor is it a copy. It's owned by you. There's the old saying that "possession is 9/10 of the law".

Steal your inspiration, and own the results.

I don't think anyone has truly confirmed the quote attribution of Picasso by Steve Jobs. Perhaps it's more likely his own words that have gained fame, which he prefaced with:

It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that Humans have done, and then try to bring those things in to what you're doing.

An Apple executive gave a similar opinion when asked about the quote in a CNET interview:

"I think people focus on the Picasso statement and focus on the word 'steal,'" said Bud Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology and leader of the Macintosh software team during its infancy. "If you take that word, which is kind of pejorative, and replace it with 'make it your own,' I think the underlying idea is that you can't do great design by copying something because you aren't going to care about it. If you take something and make it your own, what really happens is now you care about that design. It's your design and that is the dividing line between copying and stealing...

  • 1
    Excellent answer Chase. Welcome to GD.SE!
    – Yisela
    May 8, 2014 at 6:42
  • 1
    A very nicely supported first answer Chase, +1 & welcome to the site. May 8, 2014 at 7:20
  • 1
    Also, if you Imitate, Copy, or Borrow something, you are not free to change it. If you own it, you can do whatever you want with it. May 8, 2014 at 12:21
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    @Ryan am referring to the artistic concepts being discussed here, not the legal acts of actually "borrowing" nor "stealing" someone else's work. May 8, 2014 at 15:23
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    This appears to be what T.S. Eliot meant when he originated this form of the saying. I personally interpret it as additionally meaning that great artists are brazen, while lesser artists are more timid – a sense that especially applies to designers like Jobs. May 8, 2014 at 22:38

Einstein said "The key to originality is hiding your sources". You're right, it's a concept that's been commented on by many great artists, the concept though I think is less literal than you're reading it. I think it's about originality. The idea is that there are no truly original thoughts and thus there is no truly original creation, everyone is influenced by the world around them. Good artists understand how to borrow from the world around them, but it takes a great artist to mask their theft.

  • 1
    +1. Most inventions improve the implementation, not the idea behind them. Light bulb wasn't original; it just worked better than all the other light bulbs around. Ford didn't invent cars, he just made them cheaper than everyone did. A great artist takes an existing idea, makes it his own, and refines the implementation so far that it's no longer recognizable from the original invention.
    – Muz
    May 9, 2014 at 15:12
  • There can be no truly original ideas, because for ideas to exist they must be inspired. Most great ideas are inspired by frustration with the status quo.
    – JamiePatt
    May 10, 2014 at 1:47

Those sayings also remind me of a scripture:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. -Ecclesiastes 1:9

Stay with me...

That being said, I'm currently finishing up a class on the History of Animation which is quite interesting. One of the films we studied was a German film done in 1943 called Der Schneeman (The Snowman).

Still from Der Schneeman

In this film, a snowman desires to see what summer is like, so he hides in the freezer of an unoccupied house until Julio (July). He succeeds and enjoys frolicking in the flowers. The character story and design was uncanny to Frozen's Olaf, who many of you will know that he sings a song in the movie about "What I would do in Summer!".

enter image description here

After pointing this out to the instructor, he tells me that many of the current animators at Disney have taken his class.

The key to great art is knowing what to steal.

  • Might be interested in the Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations if you aren't familiar: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirty-Six_Dramatic_Situations
    – Ryan
    May 8, 2014 at 16:01
  • 1
    Funny you should mention that about Disney. Check this out: youtube.com/watch?v=e4ia5TBmY78
    – paddotk
    May 10, 2014 at 15:58
  • 2
    Everyone will see and read the other great answers. But I think we can all get something a little more vivid from this one. Steve Jobs attributed this quote to Picasso, but that hasn't been confirmed. For all we know, Jobs made it up. What way could be better, then, to explain the quote precisely the way that he used it. Jobs wasn't successful for his skill at making things his own, stealing them. He was successful for his ability to recognize which things to steal. May 11, 2014 at 11:16
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    I think this answer reveals the untold secret of this quote, and what it really meant to the man who made it famous. May 11, 2014 at 11:18
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    @JonathanTodd - To further prove your point about Steve Jobs, Pixar, the animation company that Disney contracted for Frozen was bought by Apple (Steve Jobs) when George Lucas sold the computer animation division of ILM.
    – ckpepper02
    May 11, 2014 at 19:36

"If you're already front-end developer/designer, well, pretend you're also wearing a pirate hat" -Ethan Marcotte, Responsive Web Design 2011

Jony Ive, a genius of beautiful, minimalist design. But his most creations bear a more than passing resemblance to the work of another design genius, Dieter Rams of Braun. They look the same but what the products do is quite different.

"If people copy your work it is more like a compliment."

Remember we are copying nature right from the beginning of mankind. We copy we learn and we make mistakes, we make things better and then transfer the same to others for further desired improvements accordingly and that's how a great design evolves.

Copying some great designers is a kind of “compliment rather than shallow copying.”

“Design is not how things look, but how they work.”

The above small thing to read makes the key difference.!!

And at the end of day, I think it doesn't matter from where the design evolved

"Design is done when problem goes away."


Original ideas exist, but are rare. They are also usually fairly minor in scope. To capitalize on this you need a framework of other ideas to build upon. So the most efficient way to come with new ideas is to recombine known ideas. Just because all the pieces are known does not mean the new combination is without worth.

So even truly original ideas need the support of known things. Therefore it is important to recognize an idea for reuse, possibly in a new context.If you were to innovate all yourself, you would end up with something mediocre at best. In addition you would spend a lot of time developing something somebody already did. Knowing what exists allows you to choose more optimal choices. New is also unknown so you swap known downsides with unknown ones when you make truly new stuff. Choose your battles, innovate where it counts most. Or just do better recombination.

Ownership of ideas is also fairly arbitrary. You can be attributed for the idea for several reasons. Watt didn't invent the steam engine, yet is attributed as the man behind steam engines. Pythagoras didn't invent the Pythagorean theorem. And Newton borrowed more than anybody else, but then that was his point, and greatest contribution.

In the end its about making best possible choices. Known things are more informed choices. New things can be recombined out of old ideas and ultimately the ownership of an idea is up for grabs until it has been assigned to somebody who did it better or has better marketing skill. Design is making it better not differently and equally well. The one who succeeds in building the best possible combination is the one to be remembered, not the one who came up with the general idea.

  • I think a summary of some sort is needed in order to tie your supporting details into a final statement answering the question. May 8, 2014 at 7:22
  • @JonathanTodd Yeah maybe it got a bit fragmented tried to improve a bit might still need a revision tough.
    – joojaa
    May 8, 2014 at 9:59
  • You've made it much better. In my opinion, though, every answer on length should end in a Tl;dr section, of sorts; A short summary to allow attention deficit readers to check your overall view before deciding whether or not it's worth the read. May 8, 2014 at 10:05
  • @JonathanTodd shouldnt tldr come first as some sort of synopsis?
    – joojaa
    May 8, 2014 at 12:12
  • Either / Or - It's commonly done both ways May 8, 2014 at 12:13

One of the first topics I wrote about on my journal is this one. I'll paraphrase and repost some of it here to share:

New forms do not come from nothing, not for us humans at any rate; they come from prior forms, through mutations, whether un- sought or invited. In a fundamental sense, there are no theories of creation; there are only accounts of the development of new forms from earlier forms.

- Frank Barron

When I was an undergraduate student I took a number of philosophy courses. That was when I first learnt (I recently learnt that learnt is a word in British spelling which is good enough for me because I’ve always felt it more linguistically acceptable than learned) that man does not have the capacity to truly create something out of nothing. The professor I had was Sean Allen-Hermanson (Faculty Profile) and the example he gave us was the unicorn. A unicorn he explained as a horse with a spiral horn not as anything truly new. In my research I now understand this to be Conceptual Blending (Further Reading).

As a designer what interests me in this are two things:

  1. Just the ideas behind it and understanding more about how creativity works
  2. Realizing that while seemingly more “creative” the more you are able to break away, perhaps the worse the results will be.

What that second point means is that for example and used in studies one might ask a person to design an extraterrestrial. Some will envision things based off familiar ideas say a little green martian which looks strikingly like humans but smaller, with antennae and green skin. Others will deviate from this which is apparently more creative. However, the further from the reality which is known by the audience the less the audience can relate. An example might be in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer when Galactus was portrayed as a cloud. Fans and critics were disappointed and newcomers were confused. Simply put – it is interesting and extremely creative to come up with a being that exists as a mass of gasses, however it is very difficult to relate to.

One of my favorite conceptual Architect’s, Lebbeus Woods, imagines worlds where things are off-axis, physics may function differently, we may function differently. The results are incredibly interesting studies of how space may exist and in a sense how space does already exist.

Further Reading:

Creative cognition as a window on creativity - Thomas B. Ward

A Design Research: The creative cognitive approach in the processes of shaping and making of a place - Gokce Ketizmen Onal

To now try to relate this more to the question posed here:

We as human beings don't have the capacity to come up with entirely new concepts. The phrasing "Good artists copy; great artists steal" is towards the idea that a good artist will in fact copy a good work. But a great one modifies it which is in fact theft of the idea. Its a hugely simplistic phrasing but then that's why its memorable.


The quote refers to mastery.

When one who is not a master takes from another, it is copying, a shallow imitation. The original was authentic, but this is just a copy.

But when a master takes from another, everything from a master is authentic. The master will breathe fresh life into it.

It will be reborn through the master, and given its own life. It has been completely disconnected from any previous context.

To steal is to make your own.

Jesus may steal from Buddha. Because he perceives the same truth, Buddha's words through Jesus will be authentic. They have now become Jesus' words.

But the priest does not have the inspiration, he will not be able to steal. He does not know this truth, he has not tasted it. He may try to take Buddha's words, but they will remain with Buddha. There is no authenticity. He is just copying.

It is a very beautiful quote, because to steal is commonly understood as something surreptitious, as something negative. And it turns this understanding completely on its head.


To literally answer your specific question,

(1) there's nothing you can do to "support" the idea one way or the other.

there's any number of examples of "references/homage/copying" in great art, and, there's any number of examples of true originality in great art.

(2) regarding "explaining" the idea, there's not much to explain. An explanation in English is: "very often in art or design, you see references/homage/copying"

What's your specific "use case?"

Are you having trouble explaining to a client why something you did looks like something else, or what?


If you steal work from others, you're not a real artist. If Igor Strawinsky became famous for stolen musical pieces, then the original composer(s) are more likely the ones to give credit for.

It's different if it's about getting inspiration from other artists. Everyone gets inspiration from other sources

Also, I'm probably going to get a lot of hate for this, but don't listen to Steve Jobs. He was arrogant and a liar, sorry to say. He was also someone with great creativity and vision, but still, not someone whose statements were reliable.

  • I'm a huge fan of Steve Jobs, but I'm also realistic. He wasn't great for his honesty though. It was the vision. So as far as the statements, hell, I bet he made up 30 quotes like this a day, out of thin air, if it helped that vision. However I think you're missing the point of the quote. If taken exactly literally, you get your answer. If taken in the right way though, as shown by some answers above, you get a pretty great quote. May 11, 2014 at 10:45
  • Maybe.. But then I'm not sure how to (less litteraly) interepret it. I mean, how many things can be described as 'stealing'?
    – paddotk
    May 11, 2014 at 14:43
  • Look at Chase's answer. It's very cool that his first answer on his account received 21 votes. That's besides the point, but anyway, it's a good explanation of what I mean. May 11, 2014 at 19:58
  • I'm not sure what to make of that. It sounds like he says that once you've stolen something, it's yours. That's the thinking way of thieves, right mjah.
    – paddotk
    May 11, 2014 at 20:10

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