Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

In praise of artistic theft

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The “newness” in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components.” —Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

“Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” —Anyone misquoting T.S. Eliot or Picasso


In Noah Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale, 16-year-old protagonist Walt Berkman (Jesse Eisenberg) gets caught pawning off a Pink Floyd song as his own. At his school talent show, he performs “Hey You,” and claims credit for writing it, thereby winning first place and the prize money. After being exposed, he’s sent to a psychologist, who asks if he had a reason for lying about writing the song. Without breaking eye contact, Walt simply says, “I felt I could’ve written it.”

“But you didn’t,” the shrink helpfully points out.

Walt’s rejoinder: “Yes, but I felt I could’ve, so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality.”


The question of artistic appropriation came into renewed focus recently when Sam Smith retroactively gave songwriting credit to Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, after someone—it’s not clear exactly who, but supposedly somebody at Petty’s publishing company—noticed that his hit song “Stay With Me” bore an uncanny resemblance to Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Petty was magnanimous about the whole thing, which is probably easy to do when you’re already rolling in dough, but even so, Petty’s statement was forthright about the nature of songwriting: “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by.” It’s an admission that gets at something essential about the nature of artistic expression: It’s no big deal when one piece of art turns out like another one. Because, frankly, there is no such thing as a purely original piece of art.

Pilfering another artist’s work is how anyone making art begins. You start by shamelessly aping a style you admire, and then, after doing that for a long time, it might start to look or sound like yours. Bob Dylan wasn’t born with The Times They Are A Changin’ locked and loaded in his mind. He spent years imitating his musical idols. Bruce Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., features songs that the Boss himself now admits are pretty shamelessly derivative of Dylan, whom he worshipped. The fertile realm of poetic license is not just a breeding ground for subsequent art; it’s the only game in town.

But that’s too easy to say, critics will charge: Smith isn’t just starting out, he’s been doing this for years. And besides, there are plenty of people writing songs who don’t get charged with copyright infringement. What about cases like this, where it’s a mere three and a half minutes of the same chord progression, the same notes in the refrain—in short, the same basic thing? Shouldn’t there be some public outcry when this happens? After all, Petty’s song is famous; surely there’s no way that Smith didn’t realize how alike the two tunes were? It doesn’t take an adroit musicologist to spot the similarities.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. (That sentence was stolen from Bill Murray, for your information.) Artistic appropriation is not only part and parcel of the process of making art, it’s 99 percent of the process—and that never changes. (It’s no coincidence that after a number of years, many great artists seem to borrow or recycle their own work.) There are only 88 keys on a piano, and just six strings on a guitar—and if you want to make music that sounds appealing, especially in the confines of a pop structure, the possibilities for how many of those different keys and notes can be combined together drops precipitously. A song is not a zero sum game, it’s a gamble. It’s a rehashing of every note and chord that a musician has heard up until that moment, stripped down to something that feels right, that evokes an idea or an emotion. And when it feels right, the last thing on a musician’s mind should be whether someone else might have had the same combination of chords. That consideration might come later, but it has nothing to do with making art.


In “The Ecstasy Of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem spends 10 pages arguing that all art is an inseparable mix of originality and appropriation. The borrowing, the sampling, the conscious or unconscious use of another’s ideas, words, thoughts, and art in the service of one’s own is to be welcomed, not warned against. “Any text,” Lethem claims, “is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony.” He actually takes it even further: “The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism.” If we ourselves are made up of no more than the sum of our influences, if our very neurons and memories are just recombinants of a broader palette we only dimly understand our sampling of, then surely our artworks can be forgiven for doing the same?

It’s a lovely sentiment, expressed with Lethem’s usual flair. Except for where it isn’t. Half the words in the above quote belong to Mark Twain. At the end of his essay, Lethem reveals that his entire piece is a slippery amalgamation of the work of others, and proceeds to detail the dozens of citations, quotes, and outright thefts from other authors and artists that make up his argument. It feels too clever by half, but it drives the point home: Any artistic expression stands on the shoulders of thousands that came before, some of which did it better, some worse. Our critical evaluation of the finished product should have no bearing on our tolerance—or better yet, encouragement—of artistic appropriation. To put it less gently, we only think art is original when it effectively masks its origins.

Meyers Speech

“Good poets borrow, great poets steal” is often offered up as a testament to the way that artists operate, a kind of shorthand explanation for the inherent silliness of intellectual property claims. It’s usually attributed to T.S. Eliot, or sometimes Picasso. Which is ironic, because neither one actually said it. As Nancy Prager details in this illuminating history of the misquote, Eliot actually had in mind a rather different point, as the larger quotation from his essay on poet Philip Massinger demonstrates:

One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.


It seems that Eliot wanted to make the point that the plundering of another’s artistic output must be done with an eye to transforming it into something that wouldn’t be recognized as such. This is the same explanation often given for the outrage over something like the Sam Smith/Tom Petty controversy. Unfortunately, Eliot seems like a poor choice as the spokesman for this kind of argument. When it comes to the “originality” of the language, The Waste Land is practically the literary equivalent of a Girl Talk album. Even so, his point isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of theft—it’s a frank admission that all art is theft. Our outrage should never be about the theft itself; it should be about using what one steals badly.

There are actually two different claims imbricated in this discussion. One is my topic: a philosophical conversation about the nature of making art, and the proper purview of what Thomas Mann called the “higher cribbing.” The other is a legal/cultural debate about the function of intellectual property rights, i.e., to what extent “authorship” of particular works of art should constitute a lawful claim to any art bearing the same basic contours. There’s a vibrant debate to be had about the latter, and I’m certainly not going to solve it here. We can all agree that if a teenage kid in Ohio makes a cartoon on his laptop, Disney shouldn’t be able to just copy, market, and make millions off it without attributing proper credit and remuneration to that kid.


But the mad rush to privatize all concepts, all chord progressions—to claim ownership of the words “That’s hot” or “This sick beat”—speaks to a rapacious capitalist mentality at odds with a liberal pluralist society and with art itself. The drive to stick little flags of copyright pride into every combination of words, images, or notes doesn’t ensure a piece of the pie for the little guy; it ensures that there is less and less of the pie to begin with. Our national parks, our public streets, our playgrounds, and other shared spaces of our cultural heritage are slowly being chipped away. Surely we don’t need fewer and fewer shared tools of the imagination, as well?

This debate over law isn’t meant to distract from my argument about the nature of artistic appropriation, but rather to highlight how difficult it has become to even talk about influence, creation, and pilfering the work of others, without falling back into the privatized language of ownership and possession that filters our understanding of the artistic landscape. The realpolitik of making stuff in late capitalism entails a compromise with material interests, to be sure: If I write a really catchy song, I want to register it with ASCAP, so that any success my little piece of music finds in the world reflects back to me not just for the authorial credit, but maybe some rent money. But why should this lead us to condemn the act of appropriation itself? Pragmatic considerations of finance are about as relevant to the kid trying to string three notes together as a pomegranate is to a game of chess.


Especially in pop music, where you have roughly three minutes to make your case, the logic of intellectual property rights gets harder and harder to justify as the years go by, as the same strung-together notes are reworked and repurposed millions of times a year, to varying results. (We haven’t even touched on the nature of sampling, mashups, and the many other forms of art that are birthed from the direct theft of others’ art. Does anyone feel like claiming that DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing….., an album composed almost entirely of sampled content, is artistically invalid? Neither do I.)

Perhaps the world of law, responsible for so much of the confusion, can also help to provide an answer. The non-profit organization Creative Commons is one answer: an open-source playground where people can, as the website puts it, “realiz[e] the full potential of the Internet—universal access to research and education, full participation in culture—to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.” But we should displace the emphasis on the latter word, “commons,” with attention to the former, “creative.”


Because the truth is that the world of art has always been one enormous creative common space. It’s an unceasing proliferation and harvest of ideas, tools, and flights of fancy ripe for the stealing. Those more idealistic than myself use this fact as a springboard into a whole messy argument against the very idea of intellectual property. My own purpose is much humbler: I simply suggest that what is often at the heart of these claims of theft when it comes to pop music is simply a sense of outrage at the lack of attribution.

When Green Day makes millions from writing a song that uses the same basic idea as a Dillinger Four record from six years earlier, it offends our sense of decorum. Never mind that the same chord progression has been used hundreds of times, in varying ways and forms; it’s that we don’t think they properly made it their own. This could entail a belief that their tune is simply a reheated version of D4’s original. Or maybe we just want some acknowledgement in the liner notes: “Thanks to Dillinger Four for the lovely guitar riff, we really like it.” It’s a very American belief to demand credit where we think credit is due. Never mind that most of what we consider great art is the uncredited appropriation of some other artist’s work. We don’t usually know that Lolita was originally a story, pilfered almost beat-for-beat by Nabokov and reworked into his towering novel. But Tom Petty—we know that guy, damn it, and you can’t just rip off his tune! It feels… improper.


Sure, later on, you may realize that what you thought was your unique musical vision isn’t that unique, after all. And if it sounds too much like something you’ve already heard, you may decide to scrap it entirely. Or maybe you’ll share songwriting credit, figuring that the previous artist had a hand in your baby. But what shouldn’t matter is the actual act of appropriation itself. Tom Petty didn’t invent that chord progression, and Sam Smith shouldn’t be pilloried for thinking it was his. Because it should be his, as much as it is Petty’s. The creative common space of musical notes, of sing-along refrains, will always be a game of maybe-try-it-like-this, a tweaking and reconstituting of the existing materials you have to work with. And those materials are never unformed lumps of clay; they’ve been shaped into discrete gifts, meant to be used and abused, affected and affecting. The very notion of a “pop song” means the limitations are profound, while the resources for appropriation are vast. Your verse is not your verse, your chorus is not your chorus, your song is not your song. Your song is our song. Your song is my song.

And I’m not sure, but I’m pretty certain I’ve heard that somewhere before.