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Great Artists Steal

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

– Attributed to Pablo Picasso

What is the difference between copying something and stealing it?  To copy is to mimic, to ape, at all steps being cognizant of the fact that the thing you are copying is not your own.  To steal is to take something and make it your own.  Therein lies the fundamental difference in attitude between the technically competent and the great: an artist who merely copies without making a work his own has not imparted his own style and has not truly produced something worthy of being called art.  He is a failure as an artist.  A great artist, no matter how much he may superficially use the styles of others, leaves his own mark on things.

[I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.

-Trent Reznor, on the Johnny Cash cover of ‘Hurt’, quoted in Alternative Press

The recent furor over Nick Simmons copying from Bleach calls to mind the furor over Shepherd Fairey not sourcing his tracings.  Indeed, it calls to mind a number of similar events.

When Naruto does it, is it copying or theft?

When Slam Dunk does it, is it copying or theft?

A great many of the pundits appearing in the wake of this controversy miss the point.  They seek a distinction between something that is fully original and something that is completely unoriginal.  Often, however, this kind of neat, cut-and-dried divide only exists in our minds.

How, then, are we to decide between acceptable and unacceptable appropriation?  Return to Picasso.  If a work is stolen – that is, if its appropriation serves to form the basis of a derivative work with artistic merit – then that theft is a great thing.  If it is merely a shallow copy, devoid of innovation – why, then that is a terrible thing.

So should Nick Simmons be punished?  By all means.  He hasn’t done anything with the work except trace and copy it, even matching personalities with the original character designs: the Zaraki Kenpachi design is applied to another brutal killer, the Inoue Orihime design is applied to a girl who similarly cries for her comrades, and so forth.  But let’s not say he should be punished because he stole.  He should be punished for failing to steal.

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