Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
March 29, 2012 6:16 AM

Where Do Ideas Come From?

"I keep having my ideas ripped off!"

I grew up being friends with a very successful individual. The problem was that this individual could have been much more successful (especially if you asked them). If you sat down with this individual and asked them why they thought they weren't as successful as they had imagined, it would all boil down to one thing: "people keep stealing my ideas." Sure there are patents and trademarks and other things to help protect that which is proprietary, but is an idea and/or a concept the same thing? As someone who has been Blogging for close to a decade, I'll often come across a Blog post that gets lauded for its originality and perspective, only to find out that it's a shared sentiment to something I wrote about years ago. Do I think that this Blogger stole my idea? No. Do I feel like I got the short end of the wishbone? No. Ideas come from the zeitgeist. While the thought may be (somewhat) original to me, it was inspired by the things around me (that which is being said, done and communicated). In essence, an idea is the "tip of the spear" to things that have inspired me. It would be (somewhat) audacious of me to think of it as being a purely original idea. I'm also hopeful that the content I publish inspires new ideas from others (whether intended or not).

No NDA.

People often want to meet with me to share their business ideas and get my perspective. It's a very flattering position to be in and it really does humble me. Sadly, three quarters of those meetings never happen because I won't sign a NDA (non-disclosure agreement). I would quickly have a very bad reputation if I was stealing ideas but beyond that, I've rarely sat down with someone and been show an idea that I hadn't already seen in one incarnation or another. I also worry that it's something we may be working on for one of our clients. I'm sure there are many lawyers and legal professionals who will scoff at this Blog post, that's fine: Google knows all. You see, you can claim to have an original idea, but I would recommend that you do a search on anything and everything that you would define as an idea unique to yourself. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this back in May 2008 for The New Yorker in an article titled, In The Air. His article doesn't make my point true or valid, it simply points to this very real reality: ideas are in the air.

Steal this idea.

The other day, I saw this tweet on Twitter: "tzacchi: @netclueonline wonder what @mitchjoel and Twist Image (Six Pixels of Separation) think of your new logo. #2minds1thought." It linked to this webpage. Look familiar (especially to those who remember the first version of the Six Pixels of Separation logo)? Do I think that they stole our idea? I hope not. I'm going to assume the best in people (and not the worst). But again, Google doesn't lie. How hard is it to see that the Six Pixels logo came out in 2008? Seems pretty obvious - if anyone cares - where that one, idea came from. I also can't speak to previous brand identities that our designers may have been inspired by to get to our result. So, should you steal ideas? The answer is yes, so long as you're not stealing it - exactly. Artists have bee saying this years. Do you remember Picasso's famous saying: "good artists copy but great artists steal"?

Stealing is only stealing when the ideas don't inspire.

Those who steal ideas and make something different win. Those who steal ideas and do nothing with them but steal, are thieves. I had breakfast with Chris Brogan today. He's a friend... and someone who I don't get to spend enough time with in the year. We were talking about this notion of ideas and stealing. We started laughing because we have both been caught in instances where we've found ourselves Blogging and realized that we had actually written about the exact same topic at some point in the past. Caught red handed! We're now stealing from ourselves! We both laughed, but it was a true moment of enlightenment for me. Ideas are everywhere. It seems obvious enough. But, you need humility. So many things inspire me: music, books, Blogs, people like you and more. With that, I'm humble enough to recognize that I may just be vessel here and not the source.

What do you think about ideas... and where they come from?

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Katie Davis
    Mitch Joel

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post (thanks Chris Brogan, for sending me here). In my podcast this week I answer a listener's question with basically the same answer and talk about how ideas are in the air so it's incredibly satisfying to have this confirmed by someone I admire!

    Reply
  • Posted by Chuck Frey
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch, thanks for writing about this topic. It's timely and important. As the founder and publisher of the largest website covering innovation, creativity and brainstorming (InnovationTools.com), it's a topic that I've researched and covered extensively over the years.

    I love your analogy of the idea being "the tip of the spear" of the things that inspire you. But I'm not all that concerned about people stealing my ideas, because as a creative person, I'm generative. I can always come up with more ideas - it's not a zero-sum game. Same goes with presenting ideas to your boss (or whomever you serve) - they won't buy everything you bring to them. But that's OK. They'll appreciate that you invested time and energy thinking creatively about their needs.

    Reply
  • Posted by Greg Bogdan
    Mitch Joel

    Ideas are plentiful. The real challenge is to turn the idea into something. Ideas are like dreaming. We all dream. We all get inspired. If you have an idea that you even shared in some way, but never acted on it, then someone comes along in turns that into a reality, whether they got the prompt from you or not, all kudos to them. Dreaming is easy, building is very, very hard.

    Original text is another matter. If your objective is to simply express yourself, coin a new phrase, connect dots that no one else has, present a truly novel way of looking at something, then I suggest placing the text online for the world to see, and search engines to crawl, then, if you choose to claim some credit, the history is there.

    Reply
  • Ideas are plentiful. Implementation and outstanding execution? As rare as can be.

    Reply
  • Posted by Matt Brennan
    Mitch Joel

    Excellent post. You're going to have hurt feelings quite a bit if you hang onto ideas too tightly. Ideas come and go. It's in the execution.

    Reply
  • Posted by Chel Wolverton
    Mitch Joel

    I would say there are reasons for NDAs beyond protecting ideas. I recently asked someone to sign one for reasons other than protecting an idea but protecting other people. I hated it, it felt strange but I thought that it was important to make the point that it wasn't something to talk about lightly as it could result in real world consequences for others.

    If you have an idea and do not execute on it and someone beats you to the punch, they didn't rip you off, they acted more quickly on *their* idea or a variation of yours than you acted on your own. Maybe they had more time or were more committed, but as ninja mentioned to me just yesterday, "So maybe your story isn’t the first one out there. That’s okay. Can it be the better story?". (Came from a blog post he read.)

    Reply
  • Posted by John O'Neal
    Mitch Joel

    Great post Mitch, thank you. Made me think of a book that just come out from a friend, Austin Kleon. His book is called Steal like an artist. Thought you might be interested in seeing it. You may have heard him at SxSW.
    http://www.austinkleon.com/steal/

    Reply
  • Posted by Peter Lalonde
    Mitch Joel

    I had the idea for this post ages ago. (jk)

    Fantastic post. Articulates a view that gets reinforced daily. Ideas happen. What do you do with the idea is what matters? Ideas are born to be freely shared and refined. Hopefully the good ones are acted upon.

    Reply
  • Posted by Thomas Zacchi
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch,

    I must admit, that when I saw the logo of net-clue.com my first thought was that this is a "Copy-paste" job of the Twist Image (Six Pixels of Separation) logo and had to Tweet about it. As you also say, I assume the best in people - and not the worst. That was why I put a #2minds1thought in the tweet.

    I fully agree with you that Stealing is only stealing when the ideas don't inspire. Apple is a great example. They did not come up with the idea of the Mp3 player but took the idea and build the iPod and made the original idea so much better.

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Absolutely agree. Ideas are not our own. They come and go. It's when you see one float by that excites you enough to act on it....that is when an idea is actually born. Some of us are better at taking fast action. But it always comes back to the WHY. When you bring an idea into the world with the intention of serving...making someone's life better, then you want people to steal it...so it can reach further.

    Reply
  • Posted by Aline
    Mitch Joel

    100% agree.

    We were talking about this with my husband over the last couple of weeks (did you steal our thoughts?). Seriously, totally agree. 'nough said.
    Cheers,
    A

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Absolutely agree. Ideas are not our own. They come and go. It's when you see one float by that excites you enough to act on it....that is when an idea is actually born. Some of us are better at taking fast action. But it always comes back to the WHY. When you bring an idea into the world with the intention of serving...making someone's life better, then you want people to steal it...so it can reach further.

    Reply
  • Posted by Denis Bernicky
    Mitch Joel

    I had the good fortune to be a student of David Oldroyd in the late 1980's and almost everything you covered in this posting and what Gladwell has said about many other things Oldroyd was talking about in the 1980's but he always talked about them as being obvious and ideas which had been around for a very long time. He wrote a wonderful book (The Arch of Knowledge) not specifically on this topic but on the topic of the philosophy of science which covers the importance of philosophy to invention, ideas and science. Identical ideas and inventions frequently occurr simultaneously in disparate parts of the world it has ever been thus.

    Reply
  • Posted by Michael Chase
    Mitch Joel

    Great blog Mitch. One has to look no further than Mr. Steve Jobs to see how it really works to ALL our benefit!

    Reply
  • Posted by keith
    Mitch Joel

    As the great crooner Tony Bennett once said "Steal from one and you're a thief...steal from many and its research".
    I think its happened to all of us at one time or another where someone has 'borrowed' an idea but hey, if you publish it on the web then most think its fair game.

    Reply
  • Posted by Joseph Putnam
    Mitch Joel

    I love this post because ideas are very overrated. Here's my take: More people get caught with not moving ideas forward because they are afraid to talk about them than people who get their ideas stolen because they talk about them. Not only so, but Mitch, as you point out, nearly every idea has already been tried or discussed. King Solomon captured this thought succinctly when he said, "There's nothing new under the sun."

    A friend of mine had an idea the other day which we both thought was pure genius, and it was. But after a quick Google search, we found out that someone was already doing it. Contrary to popular belief, that doesn't mean we shouldn't pursue that idea; it just means that it's not entirely original, which most ideas are not.

    Albert Einstein has an incredible quote about this: "The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." Sometimes, it's necessary to properly cite one's sources and to give credit where credit is due. When this is the case, it's remiss not to do so. But at other times, there's no way to cite the source because every idea is based on one to one hundred other ideas that the author has read about before. When possible, citing is preferred, but it's safe to say that citation is not possible in every case and instead, it's impossible in many.

    This concludes my rant for today. Mitch, thanks for the great post.

    Reply
  • Posted by Kevin Behringer
    Mitch Joel

    So many points in this post resonated with me.

    One specifically jumped off the page (whoops, screen!) when I read it.

    "I've rarely sat down with someone and been shown an idea that I hadn't already seen in one incarnation or another."

    That was encouraging to me, but not just in the way it was intended in this post. I find myself often choosing not to write or post something because I figure that someone else has already had the same thought, written the same thing and, likely, done it better than I will. To see you say, Mitch, that you rarely see something TRULY original encourages me that it doesn't necessarily matter if someone's already done it.

    Kevin

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Love this post. I was reading lots of random stuff on this topic and came across a great series of videos called "Everything is a remix". If anybody is interested in exploring a bit more I definitely recommend to find them.

    Here's the link to the first one - https://vimeo.com/14912890

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    One of my favourite books is "Writing down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within" by Natalie Goldberg. In it she says:

    "We always worry that we are copying someone else, that we don't have our own style. Don't worry. Writing is a communal act. Contrary to popular belief, a writer is not Prometheus alone on a hill full of fire. We are very arrogant to think we alone have a totally original mind. We are carried on the backs of all the writers who came before us."

    That's why I think there's a synchronicity to thoughts out in the ether, and why similar topics and perspectives appear. I don't know how many times I've worked away on a post, only to find others writing about similar things, even at the same time.

    Now there's a big difference between stealing like a thief and stealing as part of a communal act...building, bridging and bettering.

    We are all vessels springing from the same source. Cheers! Kaarina

    Reply
  • Posted by Tom Nicknish
    Mitch Joel

    When reading your article about ideas and how they can be "ripped off", I caught myself reminiscing of when someone would come up with an idea at school and how the idea would inevitably surface throughout the day and by the end of the day someone would try to take ownership of the idea. To claim it as their own, whether justified or not. Why. Maybe to seem important or interesting or just to feel creative. Sometimes, the ideas would have so many "owners" or parents. Funny how some things never change.

    I like that ideas are so transferable and easily modified. Ideas need to be shaped and acted upon; to evolve or make them "better".

    Great piece. Thanks.

    Reply
  • Posted by Tommy Walker
    Mitch Joel

    I think you said it best, it's not really stealing as long as it's inspiring.

    The truth is, the marketing space steals from itself all the time. As does the writing community, film industry, music and more.

    There are 7 basic plot lines and only a handful of different character archetypes.

    Yet, these stories and characters are always getting remixed in all sorts of interesting ways that keep us spending more and watching more.

    Maybe we need to learn to be better remixers?

    Reply
  • Watch out, cliché alert, but: everything is a remix. If you take two concepts for yourself, yeah it's stealing; if you place them together and add a layer of your perspective, and if it resonates, it's now called innovation. The same goes when your idea is the original idea in this equation, and I'd rather have people copying my stuff than not copying at all — it means I did something right.

    Question is, people are sometimes afraid of being copied from because they think they won't be able to hit gold like that again. I believe that the right dosage of confidence, inspiration and attitude will make it happen again, sooner or later.

    Reply
  • Faris has a blog called Talent Imitates, Genius Steals. And Joe le Pompe has that whole site with so much advertising stolen. And in my opinion 99% of all radio rock is derivative since 1992. In fact isn't every Grammy winner in all categories a rip off act over the last 20 years.

    Which comes to nature and humanity. It is almost impossible to be original even if you create something yourself.

    Excellent post. But before you publish this comment please return my NDA 8)

    Reply
  • Posted by Charlotte
    Mitch Joel

    As a writer by trade I often find ideas from other writers and when I first started out I couldn't understand how anyone ever came up with an original piece. But now I know that although it is okay to be inspired by the ideas of others, there's no need to copy straight from another person's work (to be honest if you're not doing it better then there's definitely no point anyway).

    Of couse we'd all like to be investigating or researching something new but that rarely happens in the lower levels of copywriting. So I take the view that if you're writing a simple news story and you consume as much information as possible about a topic, find an interesting angle, add something of yourself and then write from your ideas/notes you can create something special.

    I'm careful with my writing never to directly copy from another or take their research or quotes for granted. I was disgusted when just this week a blogger friend had a large percentage of his work copied. More than the article concept this piece directly took copy, which I feel is just inexcusable especially by an individual who called him self a section Editor.

    Reply
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    Mitch Joel

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    Reply
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