What Steve Jobs really meant when he said 'Good artists copy; great artists steal'

Apple's Bud Tribble: "If you take something and make it your own ... it's your design and that is the dividing line between copying and stealing. That is part of Apple's DNA."

Dan Farber
Tim Cook, Steve Jobs, and Phil Schiller at Apple's headquarters in 2007. James Martin

Apple has sued a lot of companies for allegedly copying or stealing its intellectual property over the past three decades. In 1988, Apple sued Microsoft and HP for copyright infringement over similarities of Windows and NewWave to the graphical interface of the Macintosh and Lisa. More recently, the late Jobs had declared war against Google's Android mobile operating system, resulting in a flurry of suits against Samsung, Motorola, HTC, and others who dared to copy ideas expressed in the iPhone and iPad.

"I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong," Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson. "I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."

This from the same Steve Jobs who famously said in 1996: "Picasso had a saying -- 'good artists copy; great artists steal' -- and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas."

Given that the seeds of the Macintosh -- which led to the iPod, iPhone, and iPad -- came from ideas hatched at research facilities like Xerox PARC and SRI, it could be perceived that Jobs wanted to have it both ways. In fact, Xerox PARC sued Apple in 1989 for what it deemed unlawful use of Xerox copyrights in the Macintosh and Lisa computers, but it was unsuccessful.

During a recent interview with Apple executives Bud Tribble, Phil Schiller, and Craig Federighi, I asked about Jobs' statement and the seeming contradiction between suing competitors and being shameless about stealing ideas.

"I think that's been misunderstood. Copying means -- I believe this is what he meant when he said it because we talked about it back then -- doing the same thing," said Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing. "I think what he meant by 'steal' was you learn, as artists have, from past masters; you figure out what you like about it and what you want to incorporate into your idea, and you take it further and do something new with it. I can see why people might confuse that with the current use people have for that phrase. You don't just say, 'I want something that looks just like yours and I'm going to sell it too.'

"Great people actually understand at a deeper level what makes something great and then build on the shoulders of that and build something even more marvelous and take it further," he added. "I think that's the case. We all learn from everything in our industry. It doesn't matter what field you are in, but copying is literally just taking and doing the same thing."

"I think people focus on the Picasso statement and focus on the word 'steal,'" said Bud Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology and leader of the Macintosh software team during its infancy. "If you take that word, which is kind of pejorative, and replace it with 'make it your own,' I think the underlying idea is that you can't do great design by copying something because you aren't going to care about it. If you take something and make it your own, what really happens is now you care about that design. It's your design and that is the dividing line between copying and stealing. That is part of Apple's DNA. The things we are building and creating, we really care about. We feel like they are ours, and we are making them as great as we can because we care."

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A year before his statement about shamelessly stealing great ideas, Jobs talked about the role that artistry plays in product development in an interview with the Smithsonian.

"I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don't have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that."

For Jobs, it appears that great ideas are free, but make sure you file copious numbers of patents to protect your own. Ultimately, what matters is the implementation, what you do with the ideas. The Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad were built on the shoulders of others, but they also were put together in ways that reinvented the product categories.

Whether Apple's competitors, or Apple itself, have shamelessly but illegally copied or stolen ideas is open to broad interpretation. Apple scored a recent victory in its suit against Samsung, claiming that the Korean manufacturer copied the look and feel of the iPad and iPhone. Apple was given a jury award of about $1 billion. Now chief executives of Apple and Samsung are slated for court-ordered settlement talks to try to resolve the ongoing patent disputes.

Despite Apple's attempts to claim original art and roadblock Samsung and the Android platform (developed by Google), the iPhone has been losing market share. For the three months ending November 2013, Kantar Worldpanel Com Tech found that Apple's iPhone share had shrunk in almost all regions compared with the same period in 2012. With the exception of Japan, Android is the leading smartphone platform. In the last quarter of 2013, Samsung had 28.8 percent share of smartphone sales and Apple 17.9 percent, according to IDC.

"Our objective has always been to make the best, not the most," Apple CEO Tim Cook said during the financial earnings call Monday. So far, the strategy has worked, but it depends on Apple's artists continuing to have unique insights and products that command a premium.

As Jobs said in prefacing his statement about Picasso and artists: "Ultimately, it comes down to taste. It comes down to trying to expose yourself to the best things that humans have done and then try to bring those things in to what you're doing."