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“Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal” – What Does it Really Mean?

Those were the famous words uttered by Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple. But what did he really mean by that?

At first glance, it might seem like Jobs was advocating for theft or plagiarism. However, the deeper meaning behind his words is actually about creativity, innovation, and pushing boundaries.

In this in-depth post, we’ll explore the true significance of Jobs’ intriguing quote. We’ll look at it from multiple angles and analyze how it applies to various creative fields like art, design, entrepreneurship, and more.

Introduction to Steve Jobs’ Famous Quote

Steve Jobs’ “good artists copy, great artists steal” quote comes from an interview he gave in the 1990s. It’s a provocative statement that has sparked plenty of debate and discussion over the years.

At a very basic level, Jobs seemed to be making a distinction between simply copying someone else’s work (which he associated with “good” artists) and taking existing ideas/concepts and transforming them into something entirely new and different (the mark of “great” artists).

But the deeper you delve into the quote’s meaning, the more complex and nuanced it becomes. Jobs wasn’t giving anyone a free pass to plagiarize or steal outright. Instead, his words highlighted some of the core principles behind true creativity and innovation.

The Literal Interpretation: Plagiarism vs Inspiration

On a literal, surface level, Jobs’ quote might sound like he’s condoning plagiarism or intellectual property theft. After all, the word “steal” has a very obvious negative connotation in most contexts.

However, Jobs wasn’t advocating for unethical behavior or simply ripping off others’ work. His point was that creativity often involves taking inspiration from existing ideas, concepts, and works of art/design.

In other words:

  • Copying is merely replicating someone else’s creation without adding any new value
  • Stealing means taking an original idea/concept as a starting point and then building upon it to create something completely new and transformative

Steve Jobs believed that the greatest innovations don’t emerge from scratch in a vacuum. They come from synthesizing existing ideas and influences in novel ways.

So while outright plagiarism is never acceptable, finding inspiration from others’ work is an essential part of the creative process.

Creative “Theft” in Art and Design

Jobs’ quote is especially relevant and applicable in fields like art, graphic design, and other visual mediums. Even the most renowned artists of all time didn’t create in a vacuum – they were influenced and inspired by the artists who came before them.

For example:

Pablo Picasso, one of the most famous and influential artists ever, is often quoted as saying: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Picasso “stole” concepts from African tribal masks and ancient Iberian sculptures, synthesizing those influences into pioneering new art movements like Cubism. Today, over 300 works by Picasso reside in permanent museum collections worldwide.

In graphic design, many experts point to Paul Rand as one of the greatest designers in history. Rand took inspiration from the simple, geometric shapes and bold colors of avant-garde European art movements. He then applied those influences to create iconic corporate logos like the IBM striped logo, the NeXT computer cube logo designed for Steve Jobs, and many more.

The key principle: Great artists don’t simply replicate what already exists. They internalize concepts and influences from various sources, then combine them in novel ways to create something unique and original.

4. How the Quote Applies to Entrepreneurship and Business

While Jobs’ quote originated in relation to visual art and design, it’s just as relevant for entrepreneurs, innovators, and business leaders.

Success in business is all about solving problems in creative ways that provide massive value to customers and society at large.

Very rarely does a truly innovative business idea emerge in a vacuum. More often:

  • Entrepreneurs analyze existing products/services and identify their key flaws or shortcomings
  • They “steal” the foundational concepts that work, while innovating upon the areas that need improvement
  • They combine ideas from multiple sources and disciplines into a coherent new solution
  • The end result is a transformative product or business model that seems obvious in hindsight but was ingeniously executed

For example, Steve Jobs and Apple “stole” concepts from various existing technologies, such as:

  • The computer mouse from Stanford (which itself was inspired by Doug Engelbart’s original mouse concept)
  • The desktop metaphor and Windows-based UI from Xerox PARC
  • Multi-touch screens and gestures from researchers at academic institutions

However, Apple took those fragmented ideas and wove them together into beautifully designed, intuitive, end-to-end computing products that the masses could understand and adopt. That was Apple’s “theft” in action.

Finding the Balance: When Does Inspiration Become Theft?

While Jobs promoted the idea of “stealing” inspiration from others’ work, he wasn’t advocating for unethical plagiarism or intellectual property violations.

There’s a very important line that creators in any field must be careful not to cross, separating:

  • Acceptable creative inspiration from outside influences and prior works
  • Unacceptable direct copying or lifting of copyrighted material without permission

In art, for example, it’s perfectly fine (and practically unavoidable) for artists to be inspired by techniques, themes, subjects, and visual styles used by past masters and contemporaries.

However, it would be considered unethical plagiarism for an artist to recreate or copy an existing famous work in its entirety and claim it as their own original creation.

In Summary: Finding inspiration externally is crucial for creativity. But creators must transform those influences into something functionally new and original, rather than simply replicating someone else’s prior work verbatim.

Notable Examples of Great Artists “Stealing”

To illustrate Jobs’ point more concretely, let’s look at some prominent examples of groundbreaking artists who “stole” from prior influences:

Table of Inspirations and Innovations

Great Artist/Creator External Influences/Sources of “Theft” Resulting Creative Innovation
Steve Jobs and Apple Stanford mouse, Xerox desktop UI, multi-touch gestures The first truly intuitive and unified personal computing experience
Pablo Picasso African tribal masks, Iberian sculpture, impressionist painters Pioneered Cubism and massively influenced modern art
William Shakespeare Historical chronicles, classical Roman/Greek stories Created famous plays that became pillars of English literature
The Beatles American blues, soul, rockabilly music Merged and evolved multiple genres into massively popular rock/pop

In each case, the revolutionary creator or innovator “stole” certain foundational components from prior works.

But they took those raw materials and synthesized them into strikingly new and original end products. In doing so, they paved the way for whole new genres, art styles, technologies, and cultural phenomena.


In the words of Steve Jobs, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Here’s a concise summary of what that quote really means:

  • “Copying” is unacceptably lifting someone else’s creation without adding new value
  • “Stealing” refers to drawing inspiration and foundational building blocks from existing works
  • Great artists analyze prior influences from various sources
  • They skillfully combine and expand upon those disparate components
  • The end result is an ingenious new creation that advances the entire artform

Jobs’ quote highlights that true innovation arises from creative “theft” – not plagiaristic copying. Whether in art, design, entrepreneurship, or any field, progress comes from masterfully synthesizing inspirations into something fresh and unique.


Q: Doesn’t this quote promote unethical theft or plagiarism?

A: No, Jobs wasn’t advocating for intellectual property violations or verbatim copying. He meant that drawing smart inspirations from various prior works is essential for pushing creativity and innovation forward.

Q: What’s the difference between “good artists copying” and “great artists stealing” according to Jobs?

A: The key distinction Jobs was making is:

  • “Good artists” simply replicate or copy someone else’s prior work without adding major new value
  • “Great artists” take existing ideas/concepts as a starting point, but then synthesize them into something completely new and transformative

Jobs felt true creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum – it involves “stealing” inspirations from multiple sources and recombining them into an innovative creation.

Q: Can you give some more examples of great artists “stealing” ideas?

A: Sure, here are some additional examples that illustrate Jobs’ point well:

  • The Wright Brothers “stole” inspiration from decades of research into aerodynamics, structures, and propulsion to create the world’s first successful powered aircraft.
  • George Lucas blended elements of old Flash Gordon serials, Japanese Samurai films, and classic mythology to create the groundbreaking Star Wars universe.
  • Marissa Mayer drew upon her experience at Google and various inspirations from other tech companies to help remake Yahoo’s product offerings and company culture.

The common thread is analyzing existing concepts, and then elevating and evolving them into something entirely new and valuable.

Q: How can regular people apply this mindset of “great artist theft” in their own careers/lives?

A: Even if you don’t work in a stereotypically “creative” field, you can adopt this innovative mindset by:

  • Immersing yourself in diverse ideas, perspectives, fields of study, etc.
  • Analyzing the strengths/weaknesses of existing products, processes, business models, etc.
  • Identifying the core concepts that are truly valuable and worth preserving
  • Reimagining how those components could be recombined or evolved in novel ways
  • Having the courage to create something new, even if it seems revolutionary at first

Jobs showed that the ability to creatively “steal” and innovate is not limited to artists and designers – it’s a powerful mindset for anybody striving to solve problems and make a positive impact.

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