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You Stole My Shit: Idea Ownership In the Internet Age

A brief history of people who have stolen my ideas, and accused me of stealing theirs.

Jermaine Dupri once stole my article. 

It wasn't even a particularly useful article, just one of those pieces you write because when it's your job to write every day, they can't all be Pulitzer-worthy. I probably would have forgotten it by now, but Jermaine Dupri once stole it, so now I will always remember the article that Jermaine Dupri once stole. 

Even more remarkably, just a couple days after Jermaine Dupri copied and pasted my entire article onto his site, verbatim except for the part where he removed my name, I found my phone ringing with a 679 area code. It was Jermaine Dupri. I'm pretty sure he referred to himself as JD, as in, "It's JD." We talked. It was a friendly enough conversation, but frustrating. In his mind, anything written on the internet was automatically and entirely up for grabs, and I couldn't get him to budge. I thought comparing what he had done to someone bootlegging his albums would establish some common ground; it did not. What he did was make music, original art, and what I did was write on the internet. See how they're different, he insisted? I did not see how they were different. Eventually, he had another meeting to attend, said he'd call back later, and that was the unproductive end of the most surreal phone call of my life. 

But blessed are the outright copiers, the bootleggers, the rippers, and uploaders, for they at least have the decency to make life simple. They're the villain, and the creator is the hero. They're wrong, you're right. It hurts to see your baby in someone else's hands, but at least you're on firm ground with the kidnapper. Move just a shade beyond the literal copy and pasters though, and suddenly the ground quicksands beneath your feet and you're descending into a murky world that can be as mysterious as the workings of culture and the human mind. 

Years after #JDStoleMyArticleGate I wrote a detailed, point by point breakdown of the recently revealed Lil Wayne vs. Cash Money lawsuit, precisely because while the larger story was everywhere, I hadn't yet seen anyone do the tedious work of reading the lawsuit page by page. Then, two days later, Noisey posted a detailed, point by point breakdown of the recently revealed Lil Wayne vs. Cash Money lawsuit and I felt my blood pressure rise. They had jacked my shit. Obviously. 

Maybe it was the meditating I had been thinking about doing or the green tea I had been meaning to start drinking, but whatever the reason I refrained from venting and instead reached out to an editor I knew at Noisey. He was humble and calm and could see where I was coming from but promised that they hadn't read my piece before they wrote theirs and now I felt my anger being replaced with a growing suspicion that I was narcissistic. Was writing about a lawsuit involving one of the most famous people on the planet such an original concept that it was unthinkable anyone else could have independently done the same? 

On the surface, I resolved to let it go, to believe Noisey didn't steal my piece because I couldn't even say what stealing meant when I never "owned" the idea. I wasn't about to go so far as to claim they were outright lying to me, but truth be told, in the deep, hidden embers of my soul, I was still contentedly warming my hands by the fire of my righteous indignation. It felt nice to be aggrieved, to remain convinced of my unique creative genius, and then karma set my house on fire. 



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I had admired Paul Cantor's writing from a distance for years, but it wasn't until he accused me of stealing his shit that we ever interacted. He had tweeted about how Pill had seemingly disappeared, we later wrote about how Pill had seemingly disappeared, and suddenly I was the one having my creative integrity challenged. I understood where he was coming from, a story about Pill was farther along the originality spectrum than a story about Lil Wayne, but I also knew without question, incontrovertibly, entirely and absolutely, that I hadn't gotten the idea for the story from Cantor. Nothing I said seemed to convince him otherwise though because how do you prove you didn't see a tweet? I didn't follow him on Twitter; what did that matter? I still could have seen the tweet. I had recorded the DJBooth meeting where we came up with the idea for the Pill story, so what? I can't say I would have regarded that as incontrovertible proof either. I was entirely innocent but found myself inescapably shackled to suspicion, and it was infuriating. I assume he still believes we stole from him but has put it behind him, just like I put Noisey "stealing" my piece behind me, so at the very least we have our accusations in common. 

Of course, idea "theft" is nothing new; it's so fundamental to the human experience that it's been happening for millennia. I'm sure some Greek dude went to hear Plato speak, later found himself with a cute Athenian girl he was trying to impress, and busted out the allegory like it was his. But like so many other things—porn, commerce, communication, more porn—the internet has escalated the reach and speed with which ideas travel to incomprehensible levels. One minute you post a picture of a sad frog, and the next minute any ownership you had over the idea has been memed into oblivion. I've seen how virality can erase your name first hand.

Where once spices, cotton, and steel drove the world economy we're now living in an idea economy. Instead of railroad barons we now have internet search empires, Zuckerberg is merely the nerd reincarnation of John D. Rockefeller. (Note: I got that idea economy phrase from Robert Reich, who I doubt came up with it himself.) Now, more than ever, who you are, your status in the world, often your actual job, hinges on the power of your ideas, so of course, idea originality is at a premium, along with the very concept that idea ownership even exists. But while we often talk about "theft" and "stealing," intellectual property isn't the same as tangible property. If someone "takes" my idea I'm not suddenly without that idea; my loss is that I'm not credited for the idea as it moves through the world, and be careful about claiming credit for an idea. Go back far enough, and there's no such thing as a purely original thought. If an artist calls their mom in the studio, the producer overhears the call, feels inspired and samples Tupac's "Dear Mama," who deserves credit for the new song about mothers that they create? The artist? The producer? Pac?Tony Pizarro? The Spinners? Their mothers? All of them and many more. The lines between theft, influence, inspiration, and creation can become blurry with astounding speed. 

Hip-hop is far from the only art form with idea originality at its core, joke stealing is a constant topic of discussion in comedy, but hip-hop, in particular, embodies idea transmission and transformation. Placing ideals about pure originality onto a music genre built on sampling invites argument over ownership, which is likely why originality is also hip-hop's most prized possession, and so confusion and controversy is inevitable. Welcome to the Drake ghostwriting scandal. Welcome to "who came up with that flow?" debates. Welcome to shark biters. Did The Weeknd steal the idea for his "I Can't Feel My Face" video? Did Hit-Boy take the design for his new album cover? These are the questions of our times. Remember, the Based God embraces every sinner except for those who would stoop to cooking his recipes without credit

It happened again this week. An artist had released a song about hip-hop's god complex and uploaded it to DJBooth's submission system the same week we wrote about hip-hop god's complex and he had trouble believing it was a coincidence. At first, I felt the same rush of defensive anger I felt with Paul Cantor months ago, but I tried to be older and wiser than I'd been before. After all, it would have been hypocritical of me to dismiss him while I was simultaneously mapping all the ideas I suspected others had stolen from me with a fervor that would have made John Nash proud. I tried to empathize while remaining adamant I'd never heard his music, I showed him early drafts of our article dated before he released his song, I did everything I possibly could have short of a polygraph test (bring one by the office), but ultimately I'm not sure how much it mattered. I suspect he still believes we stole his idea, and truth be told, despite my attempts at positivity and empathy, I feel vaguely resentful for having to prove I didn't steal an idea that I didn't steal. 

Interactions like these can make me want to build a wall—no ideas come in, no ideas go out—but that's not what I want, not really. I do this because I want to stand in the vast river of creativity that stretches centuries back, and standing in that river means staying in that river, even when it gets muddy. No idea is purely original, outright copying and theft happen, and unraveling all the grey areas in between those two points can be mind-bendingly complex, but I have to be willing to embrace that complexity. I have to be ready to defend myself, watch ideas catapult from my control and continuously examine my work for influence, to make sure I recognize the shoulders I stand on while also inviting others onto my shoulders.

I can clearly define where my ideas didn't come from—I absolutely didn't see that tweet, absolutely didn't hear that song—but where do my ideas come from? There are 33 years of experiences, conversations, songs, books, articles, and much more now gumbo-ed into my brain, with more being stirred in every day, and separating the ingredients can be impossible. Yesterday I realized Grantland often uses the same Catchy Phrase: Explanation headline style I usually do (ex. "You Stole My Shit: Idea Ownership..."). Did I subconsciously jack their headline style? Are we both subconsciously jacking some other source we both couldn't name? David Foster Wallace never wrote about the Weekend, but I re-read my Weeknd article now and feel like I can recognize shades of Wallace's run-on-sentence-avalanche-of-ideas style. I've been thinking about Wallace lately now that this new movie about him is out, did his ghost haunt my fingers when I typed? I honestly couldn't say. It may sound like grandiose art talk, but there is a vast, nebulous ether of ideas we all draw from, one we share with a lot of others, and it's my ultimate responsibility to make sure I put more into that ether of ideas than I take out. It's daunting to think I could ever add as much to the creative world as I've gotten from Jack Kerouac, from De La Soul, from so many more, but I'm going to die trying, and if I have any even remote chance of paying back my idea-generation-debt I certainly can't afford to steal. 

I'm still waiting for that call back JD. 



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