The idea in a nutshell: As soon as a good idea appears, everyone is claiming it’s theirs. There are some sound psychological factors which cause it and some more rational causes for the phenomenon. In fact, the nature of ideas is that they often occur in this way and can even be improved by the process.

It happens to me all the time

I work in kind of a creative function at a bank. It’s my job to come up with ideas sometimes. When I do, I often observe the source of the idea changing. I like and respect my colleagues. I don’t actually think the source of the idea matters that much. I like building things and my job appears safe at least for now. But I decided to look in to why it was that the ideas I felt I had originated were consistently being misappropriated.

You hear a lot about it in the music world

Idea theft has been prominently and regularly featured in the news when it comes to people stealing each other’s ideas and including them in their songs.

The Australian pop band ‘Men Down Under’ rift were sued by the owners of ‘Kookaburra Singing In an Old Gum Tree’. Unfortunately, they lost. Even more recently, Led Zepplin’s were sued for having stolen ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ They won.

The concept of consciously or subconsciously ‘stealing’ an idea appears to happens all the time in the creative world.

Sometimes people steal a good idea and don’t realise why

As reported in the Huffington Post Dan Gilbert, a psychologist has coined a term for it: Kleptomnesia. He performed a landmark study of the phenomenon and, in the experiment he ran, a full 75% of participants unintentionally plagurised ideas from the people they were working with.

The cause, Gilbert claims, is that humans are wired to listen for the information, not the source. The ‘theft’ happens more commonly in fast moving environments with lots distractions – like a modern day office.

Stealing ideas can even be a good thing, usefully evolving the concept

In the fantastic and well worth watching ‘Everything is a remix’ they point out that there are few ideas which are entirely original. They also suggest that by evolving existing concepts, a remix or reinvented version of an existing idea can produce something extremely worthwhile – such as Star wars.

Not quite Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist is a word you might know. It means the spirit of the times. I use it here because, in researching this, a concept appeared which suggested that sometimes the time for an idea has come. Sometimes, the circumstances in an environment change and create a moment in which the same idea appears simultaneously to many people independently.

It’s called ‘multiple discovery’ and the first phone call is a good example

Alexander graham bell.

Multiple discovery simultaneous invention is the name given to versus heroic lead. Increasingly, nobel laureates are announced three at a time because they have discovered the same thing at the same time.

Summing up

John F kennedy famously said“Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan”. The same is true of ideas. The fact that there is even a saying for this sort of thing suggests it has been around for some time.

People like to claim the good ones as their own. In popular society, the film ‘The Social Network’ painted a picture of what the ‘real’ issue might be in many cases, including the song writing infringement that I started with: Whoever came up with the idea is entitled to most of the money form it.

In my function at work, I think position plays a role. I think more senior people truly believe they have the best ideas because they are the boss. Politics also plays a role in any company. Presenting an idea to the boss can help careers.

I think I am extremely fortunate there because I have the job I want and have no wish to progress from it. I won’t get the money from the idea even if it is great. I am lucky that they pay me to have ideas.

The very fact that ownership of an idea doesn’t prevent its use (unless through copyright, trademark or patent) and the fact that an idea can be communicated quickly at no cost is why the world is a great place and it’s getting better quickly. Ultimately, if ideas can pop up, whistle around the world and make things better, attribution doesn’t matter.

To close: A logical disclaimer

I do have to concede, given the nature of this post, that :

A ) Since I am as convinced as my colleagues that I originated the idea, I could be equally deluded about it.

B ) I have studied several sources to contribute to this blog article, in order to research it for myself. I have credited those sources throughout the text to ensure that I have not stolen their ideas. Because that would be ironic and embarrassing. The irony of this article is that, while I have collated some previously disparate ideas, I don’t think I have broken new ground.