Great artists steal

Great artists steal

The late Steve Jobs referenced the quote "good artists borrow; great artists steal" and since then it's been weaponized and used to both condemn Apple for a perceived lack of creativity, or to excuse or justify competitors feeding off Apple's creativity, or both.

There was Xerox PARC before the Mac, critics say. There were Palm Treos or LG Prada's before the iPhone. There were Tablet PCs before the iPad. Nobody copied Apple and if they did, Apple copied other people first! Great artists steal!

Except that's not what the quote means, and it's not at all what Apple does.

Great artists steal inspiration not implementation.

Therein lies a monumental, industry defining difference. Apple, namely Steve Jobs, saw a mouse and graphical UI, but he didn't make a copy of Xerox's STAR, he made the Mac. He didn't look at it and see what it was and then copy it -- he looked at it and saw what it could become and then created that.

The Mac was inspired by the same fundamental user interface concepts as the STAR but it implemented those concepts in a far more consumer-friendly way.

Same goes for the iPhone, which was certainly inspired by the ideas of the Palm Treo -- a connected, multifunctional device with a touch screen -- but once again implemented those ideas in a way far more accessible way for far more people.

I wrote about this yesterday in the comments to the post about Larry Page dismissing Steve Jobs' anger towards Google and Android as "a show".

Apple’s singular talent is taking existing technologies, putting them together in ways that are elegant and sensible, well packaged and integrated, and making them mainstream.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the car, he invented a way to make the car for everyone. Apple didn’t invent the elements that went into the iPhone, but they absolutely invented it. They invented how it looked and felt, how it was manufactured and how it worked in relation to the carriers. As the sum total of its bits and atoms, they invented the iPhone.

And not just the iPhone.

Again, it's why Apple made the Apple II and not IBM, why Apple made the Mac and not Xerox, why Apple made the iPod and not Sony, why Apple made the iPhone and not Palm, why Apple made the MacBook Air and not HP, why Apple made the iPad and not Microsoft.

Any one of those would have been an achievement. All of those together, from one company, over the span of one lifetime, is something much more.

It's great art.

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Great artists steal


If what you say is the case, why sue Android OEMs?
By what your saying, as long as i improve on the device in question its not stealing.
So we're saying Android didnt steal anything from Apple they simply saw something and said, 'Hey, this is great, but how can we make this better for power users or price conscious consumer.'
These arguments are pointless. People will believe what they want regardpess of the evidence or lack there of. Thats human nature.
We can translate it anyway we want to make an argument. Take it literal and Steve is a thief. Flip it, and he is a innovator.
Who cares? No Android fan will believe you if they dont want to be convinced. Just like an Apple fan wont believe the cries of Jobs stealing.

You didn't really understand what he said.
There's a difference between simply taking someone's exact implementation and adding a slight spin on it and actually using that as the starting point for a sincerely new concept.
The 'bad' example of improvement is Samsung. Its goal is and was only to copy the iPhone -- in design, in software, in services. It might occasionally have faster processors, better screens, and new software shortcuts, but its aim was ultimately to imitate what Apple did and compete on slight variants.
The 'good' example is, of all people, Microsoft. Yes, it was trying to copy some parts of Apple's ecosystem, but Windows Phone itself is an actually new interface and a different way of thinking about it. Microsoft saw the iPhone, but instead of saying "me too!" like Samsung, it used the iPhone only as a jumping off point for what was ultimately its own idea.
That's why Jobs didn't like Android. While I don't think the OS itself is as imitative as he thought, he saw Android as fundamentally lazy, just taking some basic smartphone metaphors and slapping a few iPhone-like features on top.

^agreed! Thomas, you only saw what you wanted to see in this article. Become impartial (TRULY impartial), and read it, again. Believe me, it will give you new insight. I have ALWAYS bee a complete Apple fanboy, but that caused me, at the beginning, to be very closed-minded. Several months ago, I decided to openly see what Android has to offer, and while my ONLY mobile phone is still an iPhone (and will be for the foreseeable future), I saw Android for what it is... not what Android haters make it out to be. I DO agree with Steve Jobs, in that Android damn-near replicated the iPhone OS (and design-ish)and added a bit of alterations to make it look different enough to cause some doubt. But I will say that Android DOES have its perks, where the iPhone falls short, and the converse is also true. It all depends on what YOU, the consumer, want out of a smartphone. Apple is trying to cater to as many people as possible with ONE device, whereas Google is trying to do the same thing but by offering an OS that is on a WIDE variety of devices (with their own limits to functionality) that constantly get refreshed.

Microsoft. Windows Phone 7.
Okay, so by slapping a different interface on the device its not a copy? What fundamental ways are different? Instead of a small red dot to show I have a message I have a tile flipping? Instead of icons on the screen, their presented in a list?
That's a horrible example. The idea is to improve, and honestly, WP7 does very little of that.
As for Samsung, that example is good. It was definitely trying to be a copy. In so far as physical design is concerned. The software is the distinguishing point.
But isn't that point moot?
Rene says Apple saw the Palm and and implemented those ideas of a connected device and essentially made it better!
Easier to use.
Touching a icon to open an application isn't new. It was being done on dumb phones with navigation keys before the iPhone.

but how was anroid an exact implementation of ios other than being touch base os...honestly ios is more like android now than android was to ios back then.

It's not a matter of improving.
"By what your saying, as long as i improve on the device in question its not stealing." Nope, not once did Rene actually say that. Not even close.
It's about taking an idea, a concept, and using it as inspiration to create and invent something new.

The key difference you miss is that Apple patents the concept, claiming ownership not only over their own version but over all that the concept could become. It does not matter, for example, that Ice Cream Sandwich's slide to unlock is a different (and more flexible) implementation than Apple's single direction, because Apple claims to "own" all versions of sliding to unlock. It is easy to claim somebody else is ripping you off when you stake an ownership claim over things completely independent of any technology or implementation. You can see this in many of Apple's patents.
Swiping to unlock? Patented. The use of a level sensor to rotate a screen? Patented. The concept of a figuring out a string of numbers is a phone number, and making it al ink? Patented.
Had Xerox PARC lawyers been nearly as overaggressive, there would have been no Windows, no Mac, no iPhone, no iPad, because Xerox would have patented the then-revolutionary concept of an image on screen responding to a visual interaction. That would have been disastrous, setting back computers and consumer electronics decades. But somehow, the crowd cheers when Apple does it.
Apple may have great artists (the best industrial designers, IMHO), but their singular talent in this discussion is an unprecedented willingness to abuse the legal system to club other artists.

You might want to look around you. The point of this article missed you entirely. If must surely be laying around at your feet, apparently ignored and uncared about.

Not at all. Apple deserves full credit for taking inspiration from others, improving it, and selling a superior creation as a result.
Apple deserves full blame for abusing the legal system to prevent others from doing the exact same things.

I see how everyone is up in arms over my comment.
My point is being proven. You can't convince someone if they don't want to be convinced.
I couldn't care less if Steve stole or not. Know why? Because it has no effect on my using the product. Is it affecting any of you or is it that you feel some emotional need to get some sort of justification for a man who has passed?
Steve helped kick off a revolution. I'm glad for it. But articles like this are aimed to take words that came from this mans mouth and interpret them to fit what the author wants to think.
Honestly, at face value, if I believe that Steve truly wanted to go thermonuclear on Android, then I can take these words at face value as well, right?
That's what Android fans are doing. Taking what he said as face value. I'm not debating if that is right or wrong. I'm just saying that those words that Steve uttered can, have, and will continue to be intrerpeted, misapplied, or spoken as truth, for as long as its in people's mind.

Yes, you are proving your own point. People won't be convinced if they don't want to be.
THe difference between the early palm/pocketpc devices and the iPhone is monumental. The difference between android and iOS are slight and nearly entirely implementation oriented. Why does it hurt people so much to admit this?

To me the primary issue is my ability to install the software I write myself without going through a third party, making the difference between iOS and Android immense from my perspective. Of course I don't own an example of either, so my opinion may not hold any weight. Just remember that to many users, whether the interface, device or OS is original or not is completely irrelevant. What is relevant is whatever is most important to the user holding it in their hand. Personally I'm still waiting for smartphones to "grow up".

you say slight but the the 1st version of android did A LOT mire than the 1st version of ios. widgets,folders,notification,customization,syncing etc i wouldnt call these slight changes. thats like saying the difference between microsofts 1st windows tablets and apples ipad were slight.people say android is a replica/copy of ios but then if that was the case android would have started off just like ios,a touchscreen with a grid of icons.

"Apple’s singular talent is taking existing technologies, putting them together in ways that are elegant and sensible, well packaged and integrated, and making them mainstream."
^^ This.

Re: "Apple, namely Steve Jobs, saw a mouse and graphical UI, but he didn’t make a copy of Xerox’s STAR, he made the Mac."
And it wasn't even close to "stealing." Apple let Xerox buy pre-IPO stock, and Xerox engineers were allowed to work with Apple engineers so Xerox could benefit from Apple's development.
I wonder if Xerox kept those pre-IPO AAPL shares...

All true, but Xerox did later sue Apple for various infringements an unfair trade practices related to Apple's use of a GUI. Despite Apple's improvements, Xerox still felt Apple was violating their underlying conceptual property.
The suit was properly thrown out, in large part because Xerox had not laid the necessary legal groundwork to claim ownership of a concept when they first started out. Apple seems determined to avoid Xerox's "mistake" by locking down patents on overbroad concepts immediately.

So what you're saying is, that Apple's need to put a patent on just about every concept is a result of not wanting to make the same mistake that Xerox made? Sound like a company admitting to some truth

Thomas, I like your first comment but you should know...when any one gets an idea from apple it called stealing. When jobs or apple gets ideas from someone else its called inspiration.

I'm really not trying to be a jerk. I just don't understand why people think one person is above all reproach. This man did a lot to push mobile technology. I'm in no way denying that. But at the same time, he wasn't perfect.
So if he didn't steal those original designs, what about the notification center? Can we admit that was theft?
And if we do admit that, doesn't that mean that none of this matters?

So I couldnt care less about apple or Microsoft or google. I'm on nobodies team. But what exactly has apple "stolen"? I beat android fanboys scream this all the time, but when it comes to a wholeostic device or os, what did they copy?

Only one thing I can see wrong with this article. Steve Jobs saw the Star at Xerox PARC and made the Lisa. Everyone seems to forget that machine for the one he went to later, the Mac which had already begun design as a side project before he moved over to it.

Re: "Apple’s singular talent is taking existing technologies, putting them together in ways that are elegant and sensible, well packaged and integrated, and making them mainstream."
Agree. Many of the world's greatest technological achievements started out as mash-ups of existing concepts. For example, the Wright brothers slammed two cutting-edge ideas together: the internal combustion engine and Otto Lilienthal's human-piloted glider designs.
They refined both the engine and the control mechanisms, then tested and iterated hundreds of designs in a wind tunnel of their own design and in full-scale test flights. The Wrights became the first (more or less) to achieve powered human-piloted flight, and the rest is history.

The significant difference is not Apple's innovation (which is beyond dispute), but their attitudes towards patents.
See the above comment -- to continue your Wright brother's analogy, many of Apple's patents are the equivalent of the Wright brothers patenting "using differential air pressure to obtain lift" and forbidding any kind of research or design of fixed-wing aircraft by anybody else thereafter.

Re: "Apple copied other people first! Great artists steal!"
"Good artists copy. Great artists steal."
- Pablo Picasso
Merely copying an idea results in a counterfeit of the original.
No new ideas.
Stealing an idea means making it yours. Owning it.
Then you can improve it and re-interpret it use and its place in the world.
That's what innovation is.

FlopTech, I love that comment.
If you steal, OWN it!
Never be a coward, admit it and never apologize.

I agree that Apple was inspired by the Palm Treo. Just as Google was inspired by the iphone. But i would say it all boils down to multitouch and touch screens. Jobs saw Google totally redesign its OS for touch and got mad. IMO, he felt betrayed which made it personal.
Apple indeed made something that looked very different from the Treo. But...they also had to steal things other than inspiration from Palm for certain the mute switch? Threaded messaging anyone? How is this any different than what google did? (samsung isn't google)
Here's a few other patents Apple stepped on from Palm:
Dynamic brightness range for portable computer displays based on ambient conditions,
Method and apparatus for accessing a contacts database and telephone services"
"System and method for detection of an accessory device connection status
"User interface-technique for managing an active call

Everyone, there is the concept of revolution versus evolution. Simply improving on an idea and making it your own is evolution. It signifies how a product or idea evolves or matures over time. Evolution is natural. Revolution siginifies creation; a creational pattern. To say something is revolutionary goes beyond a natural maturity pattern. It sifnifies something new, something that will alter one's perception of how things work beyond what could be naturally expected. As an example, the first telephone was revolutionary; the mobile phone the evolution of the aforementioned. Once the telephone became mainstream, there was a natural expectation of it benefiting from mobility; hence the "mobile" phone.
The problem is that individuals confuse the two. The iPhone is an evolutionary product. Period. A logical progression that one could expected from a natural progression and maturity cycle of existing technology. So there is nothing revolutionary about it.
Remember the early Hewlett-Packard IPAQ devices that merged phone capability with perhaps one of the most successful PDAs at that time? And the first RIM Blackberry products that merged the two concepts? These all preceded the iPhone. Keep in mind, successful execution does signify revolution; rather good business.
iPhone is an evolutionary product that has impacted our society is revolutionary way. We have had few revolutionary products in recent history; as most ideas not are simply evolved ideas with different executions.

Exactly. Most major technological developments are combinations of existing concepts that build on and refine those concepts.

I'm on Thomas', Flop's, OneDC's, and Bland's side.
I think Thomas is particula is right about this discussion being largely about interpretation and predisposition to one side's interpretations.
The original iPhone was evolutionary, as said, but it's leaps since then and it's mass appeal revolutionized the field and seemingly unrelated fields. So that's where I might quibble.
But the stealing and improving distinction, where Rene and others suggest that Apple's "inspiration" doesn't count as thievery but to say that others' does, falls flat in my eyes. While I don't think Samsung's interface is an improvement, many do. It is definitely different, though, which is why I don't know wtf to do when I pick up an Android device.
But, like election cycles, the only minds likely to be changed in this discussion are the "undecided.". Not the red or blues.

Fair enough, this is an Apple fan website after all.
We all know if this little pearl had come out of the mouth of Bill Gates or Larry Page we would never hear the end of it. As it is, we are now redefining "steal".
Stealing inspiration and not implementation? Really? Mouses clicking on icons are inspiration? I sure call it implementation, but hey, Jobs is dead so we can interpret his words any way we like.

Kudos for writing a passionate piece. I agree on premise but disagree on the meat of the article.
Yes, Apple took the sum of parts and put them together but that's no different than, say, Samsung taking Apple "parts" [icon dock], adding them to their "parts" then "inventing" their take with a sum of the combined parts. I see it as 100% the same as Apple taking the grid of icons from previous phone UIs [because we know that wasn't original] or Apple taking the app store concept from Ovi [or any of the numerous old one's].
So yes, competitors took cues from Apple as Apple took cues from multiple others. Consider it flattery. ;-)
Great artists flatter. lol

Keep drinking the koolaid. Jobs knew he stole.ideas. How us Android anyway close to.iOS. in fact and apple stole goggles os. Notifications for one.

As someone who works in the field on intellectual property law, let me tell you that Apples vigorous pursuit of patent protection for all of its design concepts is no different than what every tech company does. Overbroad patents? Don't blame Apple or their army of lawyers, blame the United States Patent Office for granting such over broad patents! And guess what...other companies can challenge the validity of said patents! And even worse, you can get those patents overturned or the scope of the claims can be narrowed! Apple didn't do anything wrong getting patents on everything, Stop whining about it.

Patents have cost the industry an estimated $500 billion over the past 20 years, and the costs are accelerating as increasingly overbroad patents are applied for and granted.
As somebody who works in patent law, perhaps you would consider anybody pointing that out as whining, since, after all, some portion of that money flows to you and your employers. But anybody with an interest in the engineers and artists who create the technology would rather the producers keep and reinvest that money.
Numerous studies over the past three decades have demonstrated the current patent system no longer serves that purpose. Your system tipped past the point into being counterproductive years ago.

Great Article! No matter White Cat or Black Cat, can caught Rat that is a great Cat. If everyone try to define "Steal" then I can tell all of you. We all are "Steal" everything that the Universe had create. We "Steal" every resources from this Universe and invent stuff...

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The Brazil Fords remind me of the more recent (but pre-internet era) early to mid 1990s Gladiator conversions. These were a Ford F-350 crewcab pickup sans bed melded with the rear cap and sheetmetal of the same design full size Bronco. Basically a Ford Excursion only ten plus years prior to Ford doing it on the production line. I saw one in person back then and one of the guys I worked with in 1994 to 1996 had an actual brochure from the company.

Cool arguments! I was convinced some of you were on Apple's payroll for a while there. I own an iPod with a click wheel, an iPod Touch (4th gen), an iPad and an Android phone (HTC Incredible), so I am completely unbiased.
You can spin this very well written article any way you want. But bottom line, if we are going to say Android is stealing ideas, that same reason must be applied to Apple. If we are going to say that Apple is improving upon an existing concept, that same reason must be applied.
At the end of the day, we are consumers. Unless you have (AAPL) or (GOOG), who cares! Just rejoice that the technology is moving forward and hope that patents on software don't gridlock innovation.