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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 determine if a creative work is infringing. The court’s mindset can be used as a helpful creative framework.

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

Uniqueness, intricacy, or complexity. Make sure that your work include it’s own voice and structure. Include your own experiences. Draw from many ideas that you’ve encountered instead of just one. Create a complex string and have knowledge about the reasons for why your work is the way it is

An unexpected element. What addition can you impose? Remove an element that can deleted in a surprising way.

Mistakes in both works. Direct copying from a source can show mistakes. The copyist may not even understand the error. Without having an understanding of anatomy, for example. In a copy of another’s art, they may copy the other artist’s invention or error. Only take inspiration from elements you understand. Study from various sources and from life.

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

Attempts at superficial differences. Making a copy while changing 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.

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

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Brian E. Young

I'm a graphic designer (portfolio), classical pianist and artist in Baltimore, MD. I host the Uncanny Creativity Podcast helping to demystify the creative process and creator of, an online shop for apparel and games. Twitter: @sketchee

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