Bob Dylan is guilty of stealing.
He admits to having borrowed lines from Civil War poet Henry Timrod and turned them into songs. He’s adapted phrases from first-century Roman poet Ovid in his music. He has created new songs from traditional blues numbers and folk classics.
Critics have come down on Dylan for plagiarism, but they’re dead wrong.
Dylan isn’t a thief, he is an artist. Artists steal.
Author Austin Kleon wrote an awesome book called Steal Like An Artist. It’s a great read that will be a kick in your creative ass. Kleon suggests that nothing is really new, and everything is in some way borrowed from the past. The secret is to know how to steal like an artist. Take what has influenced you, what has been said before, what has inspired you, and what has formed your views, and expand on them. Take them to a new place. Evolve them.
Kleon presents stealing as a sort of flow chart. You steal from dozens of different places, morphing what you’ve stolen, combining various elements, and in the end you create something wonderfully unique and important.
Stealing isn’t easy.
Here’s what Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone magazine about the charges that he’s plagiarized the work of others (and warning, these comments contain profanity).
“Quotation is a rich and enriching tradition. That certainly is true. It’s true for everybody, but me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who’s been reading him lately? And who’s pushed him to the forefront? Who’s been making you read him? And ask his descendants what they think of the hoopla. And if you think it’s so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It’s an old thing – it’s part of the tradition. It goes way back. These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you’ve been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell.”
When you read my book, Brand Like A Rock Star, know that you are reading Seth Godin, Roy H. Williams, Ries & Trout, Malcolm Gladwell, and many many others. My head is filled with amazing and crazy concepts put forth by great thinkers. As an artist, all I can do is create new work derived from the crazy thoughts that fill my head.
The thief takes the ideas, thoughts, concepts, and innovations of others and presents them as his own.
The artist takes the ideas, thoughts, concepts, and innovations of others and builds greater things upon and from them.