Blog / 2012 / Austin Kleon: Creativity, Copyright, and Superstition

April 26, 2012

On Tuesday, Portland’s Right Brain Initiative invited artist and author Austin Kleon to talk about Steal Like an Artist, his how-to book about creativity. Though I hadn’t read Steal, I was drawn to its two main ideas:

  • that we are all mash-ups of everything we let into our lives.
  • that creativity comes from knowing how to remix the culture which surrounds us.

Before heading out to the lecture, I took a look at Kleon’s website, where, among other things, I noticed the dreaded © at the bottom of every page. This startled me some, seeing as copyright law tends to get in the way of remixing. Curious about Kleon’s logic for embracing the ©, I dug a little deeper and discovered this:

Austin Kleon’s Image Use

I was relieved to see that, though Kleon uses the copyright symbol on his site, he also subscribes to Creative Commons, a much more flexible version of copyright. Still, I was surprised by the license he picked for his images and text. It’s one that allows no derivative works to be made from his, a strange choice for someone who recommends remixing other people’s art!

Austin Kleon’s hypocritical book
Austin Kleon’s book

I enjoyed Kleon’s presentation thoroughly. It touched on a lot of important points about creativity and very successfully tore down a lot of what’s scariest about inventiveness. If Steal Like an Artist is half so informative and entertaining, then I’m sure it’s well worth a read.

But when I asked the artist about how he can champion remixing as an essential tool of creativity while simultaneously asking the world to refrain from reworking his stuff, he didn’t have a good answer.

He talked a bit about the remixing he does to create his art and indulged in a mini-rant about how bad Disney is. He explained that actions which are illegal according to copyright are not always unethical and that actions which are perfectly legal can also be immoral. He told me “there’s a difference between stealing like an artist and stealing like an asshole,” and he recommended that we check out Lawrence Lessig’s work as well as Kirby Ferguson’s.

Finally, in reference to the “Image Use and Copyright” page of his site, he said “it’s about covering my ass.”

Kleon’s response and his use of the © may not seem all that bad. In fact, to anyone who isn’t a copyright law radical, his conduct probably comes across as a little contradictory but ultimately innocuous. The problem is that it’s far from harmless because Kleon is far from being the only artist who’s engaging in this kind of butt-covering behavior.

Austin Kleon’s Image Use
Austin Kleon’s Little Keys to the Kingdom

Copyright has an almost superstitious quality about it. Among artists, there’s this vague and terrifying notion that the creepy copycats or the monster mega-corporation will murder a creative’s first-born artwork if they doesn’t use a © to ward the baddies off.

Artists slap the copyright symbol here and there on their sites and on their work as a matter of course. It’s a ritual, part of completing a piece and presenting it to the world. And the quasi-religious and utterly routine nature of the ©ing is so compelling that even artists who understand the importance of remixing do it.

What if, instead of spreading the copyright cancer and endangering all of culture, artists took the time to really think about what the © means? What if conversations about creativity were always conversations about copyleft concepts too? What if all artists watched this movie before accepting intellectual property law as their savior?


May 5, 2012

For a recording of Kleon’s talk, go here and skip to 29:40 if you’re interested in just the Q&A that I described above.


May 30, 2018

I wrote a book about questioning copyright called You Share Good. There’s also my TEDx talk about the beauty of imitation and this longer talk about freeing your art from copyright.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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