Great artists steal, the rest of us tweak

I've often quoted Pablo Picasso, who once said "Good artists borrow, great artists steal."  What he meant was that good artists know enough to build on the works of others, but fail to add anything to their replication of the original. Certainly they don't add enough to hide their source material. Great artists, on the other hand, often bring enough of the creative process to their borrowing that evidence of the original source (or often sources) is quickly lost. An interesting and polarizing event is unfolding around a novel blogging application, Svbtle, by Dustin Curtis and an open-source copy, Obtvse, by Nate Wienert, that illustrates this challenge.  You be the judge.


[Disclaimer: I make no claims to creativity in this post.] 

Aaron Souppouris, writing on Verge.com, wrote the original post: Meet Svbtle, the beautiful blogging platform you're not invited to, and Obtvse, its open-source clone, and calls attention to the original post by Dustin Curtis introducing Svbtle, Codename: Svbtle, and a following post by Nate Weinert offering his replication.

Dustin Curtis decided to share his new blogging platform only with an elite group of bloggers:

I wrote this engine entirely for myself, without the intention of opening it up to other people. But since realizing that it has improved the way I think and write, I've decided to open it up to a small number of vetted bloggers. At least at first. The goal is simple: when you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.

Nate Weinert is open and honest about borrowing directly from Svbtle. He recreated it as a direct response, in fact, and never pretended to create it fresh:

So here's an obviously talented guy [Dustin Curtis] showing off a beautiful new creation on Hacker News, and yet he's making it a "membership by invitation only" network? I felt cheated. This wasn't Hacker News material. In fact, it went against the very spirit of Hacker News. I felt Dustin missed out on what have been a great open source contribution… So, I decided to do something about it. Svbtle was nearly exactly what I had been looking to do with my own blog. I wanted it, and I wanted to share it with friends. I whipped open terminal, typed in rails new obtvse, and a few hours later I'm here.

This is a good case for sparking discussions with students. I'm no fan of what Nate Weinert did, but the case does raise some good questions: What is original work? What is fair for the original authors/artists? What is best for society?  

Recall Malcolm Gladwell's article The Tweaker, in which he borrowed a good word for this phenomenon from original research by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, The Rate and Direction of Invention in the British Industrial Revolutions, to describe the process by which the industrial revolution advanced and diffused so quickly:

In an article published earlier this year, however, the economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr focus on a different explanation: the role of Britain’s human-capital advantage—in particular, on a group they call “tweakers.” They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.

Set aside the point that Gladwell is one of the ultimate modern-day literary tweakers. The other point is that the bulk of the advances of the industrial revolutions were made by people tweaking other people's designs.  It runs against modern patent and copyright laws and our notions that an innovation can itself be truly novel and belong to its author or inventor (at least the one we meet first). But it may also be our victorian belief—that there is such a thing as the immaculate invention—that allows us to be so appalled.