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.

Author: moritheil

One might be forgiven for thinking that Moritheil is a postmodern literary critic who started reviewing video games in 2001, and spent the early 2000s learning at the right hand of con staff and fansubbers. However, those rumors are spurious: Moritheil is actually a distant relative of Genghis Khan who stands poised to conquer the world via the Internet. Follow along at

12 thoughts on “Great Artists Steal

  1. I love that Johnny Cash cover. Applied to an Evangelion AMV it’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

    I was hoping at some point in my life I’d create as many novel works as Osamu Tezuka made manga works. Somehow I think if I ever meet a man related to war criminals but is a nice guy, that nice guy would sue me for accidentally writing his life story.

    The other thing about copying is, it has context. Take Pluto for example. A direct copy of The World’s Strongest Robot from Astro Boy. But is it? The original was pretty dark, but Pluto is darker in some respects.

    If you wanted my vote, Nick Simmons, you would have gotten your dad to do a parody song of God of Thunder called God of Manga (and ROCK AND ROLL-OLL!). Trust me, it would be funny.

  2. You raise a good point, and for the most part I have to agree with you.

    That scene in Naruto may be mimicked from Cowboy Bebop, but because of the differences between the two, it comes off more like a homage rather than a cheap rip off. What gets me about Nick’s “work” is that there isn’t enough of his own creativity in it, it’s essentially copypasta. There’s no difference between personalities, I might as well be reading Bleach because I won’t get much else out of it. Furthermore, his reaction to it was ridiculous; feigning ignorance in the most silly of ways didn’t help the attitude pointed in his direction for this whole mess.

    P.S. Oh boy I do hope that link formatting works in your comments!

  3. There’s also parody: a theft that copies. 🙂

    Of course, a majority has to recognize it as such for a copy to be bequeathed the distinction of parody. Lesser imitations try to hide the source.

  4. Thanks for your comments!

    @Matt Brown – Exactly. Parody does not seek to hide the source. Parody is a derivative work that relies upon the context of the original.

    @CC – It was so ridiculous that I was not really sure if that was Simmons or someone pretending to be him in order to incite further rage.

    @Jacob Martin – I think that would make an excellent apology.

  5. I definitely agree with you re. “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.”. Especially since Bleach cribs from Yu Yu Hakusho.

    On the other hand, when you say that the guy should be punished for failing to steal you more or less lose me. This Simmons guy may well be balls, but ‘artistic’ emptiness isn’t a black and white thing.

    Tracing surely isn’t per se incompatible with successful theft, presumably a 90% pure ripoff can make great art. If you’re saying that only a true artist can steal you’re veering into fairly subjective territory which, imo is no grounds for disciplinary/legal action.

    The line I’ve heard bandied around is slightly different to your Picasso one – it’s “talent borrows, genius steals”. Isn’t it ok for a genius entertainer to steal? Or do you have to have that Art label first? I have no problem with laughing at the guy for being a hack, or with publicly denigrating him, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea of calling for his head because he lacks a genius for derivative entertainment.

  6. Steal it and make it your own, I vote. Just a copy is dumb. It’s a waste of your time even making it. I mean, if you can draw and come up with ideas, do it. Don’t spend time redrawing what has already been done.

    As for the fight scene copies…that’s just sad. There are enough varying moves in battle that you don’t have to lift it exactly from something else. Just sad.

    Do your job well or don’t do it.

  7. @CC @Moritheil: I think there’ve been numerous people saying that whole ‘facebook’ Nick Simmons thing was a troll.

    Great article, as always. 🙂 I’ve often wondered about the ‘originality’ of work. Do truly original ideas — those that someone else, somewhere, somewhen, somehow hasn’t had flicker through their head — exist? The path, style, and fleshing out is what makes a piece of work distinctive, and/or good. Ideas can’t be owned — even if you don’t know it, you’re probably ‘stealing’. If you have an idea, the likelihood is someone else has already had it; in a way, someone writing about vampires is stealing from another who wrote about vampires, ad infinitum. But at least try to do it in your own words.

    Though I have yet to encounter anyone else with the daft idea that vampires could SPARKLE. >.>

  8. I think it’s really hilarious how angry (I mean, passionately, *shockingly* angry) some people get when they discover that something was “stolen” from someone else. To me as an artist, the first thing I can remember doing back in the day is tracing artwork that I loved. Then, I slowly learned how to draw the lines without the artwork directly under my paper. Then I learned how to draw from life: This is the process *most* artists take.

    Note: EVERYTHING is stolen… even the idea of being someone who draws for a living. Artists do that because they saw someone ELSE doing that.

    I think people get angry because “the veil” falls away once in a while and people see that this stuff is drawn from reference (which I use all the time). People are an amalgamation of everything they’ve experienced. As long as the work being created is new and different, don’t worry about the source material. EVERYONE uses it.

  9. Wow, Naruto and Spike are identical! Amazing!

    Spike’s movement is Bruce Lee’s. Cinderella’s Castle to Neuschwanstein. Van Gogh’s paintings to Ukiyo-e. Picasso’s cubism to African masks. Even Tezuka copied Disney and established big eyes character in manga and anime.

    Only abstract paintings like Jackson Pollock don’t need reference. But that won’t be manga.

    Yeah, ad infinitum. Everything can be ready-made. Or already-made. Thomas Jefferson said idea is like lighting your own candle from the other candles.

  10. The only thing I am disappointed at is Nick Simmons because is clear he wasn’t creative! Not original but NOT CREATIVE.

    Like others have mention everyone copy cats others this is nothing new but difference is when you copy you then make it our own. If you just copy over without even being creative to mix it up then you are responsible for people to label you a theft!

    The naruto part is different they copied based on a film not anime to anime in Nick Simmons case, manga to manga.

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