What is the difference between stealing and inspiration?

“What is the difference between stealing a work and inspiration?”

Mohamed-76 asked on Quora

Substantial similarity is the term used in the United States copyright law to decide if a creative work is infringing. The court’s mindset can be used as a helpful creative framework.

Thedecision rides on whether the resulting work can only result from pure copying and not a coincidence. When making the distinction between copying and inspiration, the court use many factors such as:

Uniqueness, intricacy, or complexity. Guarantee that your work includes its own voice and structure. Expand your own experiences by telling your personal story. Draw from various ideas that you’ve discovered instead of just one and describe why they resonate for you. Start by explaining the story’s details and then give your ideal audience the your personal thinking behind it.

An unexpected element. What addition can you impose? Remove a common element that can be discarded to establish an element of surprise.

Mistakes in both works. Direct copying from a source can show mistakes. The copyist may not even understand the error. Without having a familiarity with anatomy, for example, an artist might copy an unrealistic invention or error. Only take inspiration from elements you understand. Study from various sources and learn from observing real life as much as possible.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Pablo Picasso

Attempts at superficial differences. Making a copy while switching only colors or cropping is different from making a unique piece. Start from a base that is original to your piece. Make your piece mostly inventive. This is the fun part!

How to borrow creatively

When working with inspiration, try focusing on one aspect. If working with visual arts, you might look at only the color or only the composition. Think critically about what you really like about source material. You’ll fill in the blanks with other inspirations. Whatever thoughts you have collected over your lifetime will lead you to diverging paths than any other artist.

“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources” C.E.M. Joad

Austin Kleon asks “Is it worth stealing?” in his book, “Steal Like An Artist”. Your choice of inspirations will be unique to you. If you love the design of Ikea furniture, antique houses, and country living… You’ll end up with a house that you love and that is custom made for you. Apply this idea to your artwork.


Brian E. Young is a graphic designer and artist in Baltimore, MD.


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