Claim your Lineage Proudly or Why Stealing Other People’s Stuff has Got to Stop

Photo by Tracey Clark

For years now I have seen a normal and essential part of the creative process going underground and it makes me sad and, sometimes, outraged.

This normal and essential creative process is called claiming your lineage. It’s about standing on the shoulders of those from whom you have learned, your teachers and mentors, the authors and filmmakers and artists and friends who have informed you, and when you use those influences in what you create it, acknowledging them.

In the scientific fields, everybody knows that, if they are lucky, they will add one tiny new bit to their field. And that new bit will be firmly anchored in all that went before. They aren’t expected to recreate the entire field of biology, for example.

But in the spiritual, self-help, coach world – and I see it in the writing world too and perhaps you see it in your field? – people are obsessed with being original, acting as if their ideas have sprung fully formed out of their heads, like Athena from Zeus.

It’s as if your work doesn’t have worth unless it’s wholly unique and has never been seen before.

Which is absurd because it’s impossible.

This pretense to originality-out-of-nowhere leads to so much suffering. I think it’s partially what – in addition to believing he had to create more content than is humanly possible – led to writer Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace. It blocks people from creating freely because they think they have to make it all up – and nobody can do that!

It stops people from doing great work in the world because they don’t know how to make what they do sound special and unique (yet they do spends thousands on trying to come up with a cute tagline and wonderful logo).

I think this pretense partially leads people to outright steal other’s ideas and claim them as one’s own. To pretend that changing the words of someone’s work, adding your own cute terms, makes it yours. Or that an idea someone gave you came to you in a vision. Or that changing a few words of someone’s course makes it yours.

Of course, there is this thing called the collective mind. People come up with similar ideas at the same time – it’s happened to me many times. Sometimes I was first to market (The Woman’s Comfort Book) other times not (YogaWriting). Sometimes, it doesn’t matter who is first – I do my best to develop my own art and I reach out to whomever else is doing similar work so we can support each other.

Also, let’s be clear: we all steal. We mostly don’t mean to but we are story-making animals, human magpies picking up a bit of this or a bit of that, weaving something new. Plus we’re forgetful. We forget where we learned things and we rewrite history.

Case in point: Jeffrey Davis and I had an email exchange about this very subject a few months ago. I wrote this post, then wanted to quote him in it because I vaguely remembered a brilliant email from him. I found the email (after I wrote), and went

“Holy crap! He mentioned Jonah Lehrer in his email and some of the same ideas! Did I steal this post from him?”

But when I checked in with myself, I trusted that I had been having the same thoughts independent of Jeffrey (at least that’s what my memory tells me which is highly unreliable) so to be sure, I wanted to cite him here as a big influence.

Finally, the internet has created a hyper-fast, hyper-fluid learning soup, making it far easier to pick up an idea or a phrase without consciously knowing you did. It gets tucked into your brain and becomes yours. Or you immediately combine it with another idea and make something new, which is grand and amazing, but then the original sources get forgotten. Or as Jeffrey said in that erudite email:

“Musicians sample, poets ‘steal,’ and writers playfully recycle other writers’ work to make the point that nothing’s original + the online blogging culture hallows generosity of spirit as the ultimate virtue (See David Shields). Danny Brown had a post last year that showed how an ad campaign had blatantly stolen the concept and even execution of an independent video. The Greek chorus commentary was all over the place in their responses/opinions.”

My point isn’t that we shouldn’t borrow but rather that we shouldn’t pretend to be Athena nor should we blatantly steal (no really, that’s not obvious to some people). It’s fearful, small-minded and not good for the commons. Plus it’s unnecessary.

Here’s some thoughts on what you and I could do instead:

  • Show your lineage: name your sources. When you teach, write, in resource documents, in liner notes, on a special “who influences me page” on your website, in conversation, shout out to everyone who has helped you form your ideas. Be loud and proud.
  • Support your sources. Buy their work.
  • If you think someone stole from you, contact them, by phone if possible, and assume the best. So few people are truly out to steal knowingly, and the people who are often immediately adopt a veneer of denial which anger won’t budge.
  •  Never accuse someone publicly of stealing. I have seen this done on Facebook and on blogs, and I think it’s bad form. It’s using your power to shame, andsometimes, what you see as stealing or non-attribution is actually the Zeitgeist or as Jeffrey said, “a matter of flattering influence” or your ego out of control. Pointing fingers only make you look like a bully.
  •  Be grateful. Bow to all that has informed you, uplifted you. Send prayers. Send thank-you notes.

I realize this is a big issue with many points of view and sometimes all that debate obscures a simple point: Be loud and proud about who influences you. Be generous with your support. And do your thing whether it’s unique or not. Okay? Okay.



P.S. On April 2nd my course TeachNow – originally co-created with Michele Christensen – opens for new students. We teach about claiming your lineage in one module, which consistently produces a huge aha! from students. Join me for a free sampler class on April 4th – it will be useful and illuminating. Sign up here.

P.P.S. Michele came up with a lot of the material on lineage.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below

Lisa Robbin Young - March 20, 2013

I was in a college-prep “gifted” program from the time I was in 2nd grade, and we were always admonished to “cite your sources” – which is why it boggles me now how people can fail to credit the very people they’ve learned/borrowed from! When I was in school, it was called plagarism if you failed to cite your sources. The irony is that when you DO cite your sources, my experience has been that folks think more highly of you (smarter, even!), because they haven’t read/learned what you have.

I wonder if it’s a fear that if they reveal who they’re learning from that they might “lose” those potential clients to the people they’ve been studying – or perhaps that someone might hold them accountable and “fact check” what they’re learning. Either way, it’s a sad state when we can’t openly express what we’re learning and from whom we’re learning it. So much innovation and creativity gets stifled because there’s no dialogue.

Michelle Andres - March 20, 2013

Thanks for this post, Jen. There is very little that is original anymore and “earth-shattering new’ is practically extinct. I agree, the pressure to be the “next big new thing” stifles the creative flow, stunts building upon previous work and can sap the joy of why we write in the first place. My writing is largely confessional…no one can screw up like I can! Follow in my footsteps…hahaha. The “hyper-fluid learning soup” you speak of often becomes what we think we know, and can cause confusion around “ownership.” Your guidelines provide a fantastic holy grail for new writers. THANKS!

Christine Stump - March 20, 2013

W.O.R.D. This really needs to be said now… most especially the part about claiming your peeps, your history, your giants. And if the giants are fussed about being part of the collective, well, then they can cry giant tears and water the garden for the rest of us.

playcrane - March 20, 2013

I agree. One question: how does one give credit where credit is due without sounding like I’m name-dropping? Perhaps it’s in the intent which I think is easier to show verbally than in writing.

    jenniferlouden - March 20, 2013

    great question – perhaps by knowing your intention? and also looking for good examples in literature and academic writing? I know that has stopped me or made me sound awkward at times. I so don’t want to look like I’m trying to be in the cool kids club!

      drmolliemarti - March 20, 2013

      In my experience, giving nods on social media goes a long way – even though it can make me feel like a “name dropper” at times. The best way forward for me is to refocus on why I’m sharing valuable resources and giving credit in the process. Really like your point of giving thanks through patronage.

      In my experience as a person who has had those “Hey! S/he stole my idea!” moments, giving the benefit of the doubt goes a looong way. It hurts to even read some of the public snarkiness as people vent before they take a breath. It doesn’t reflect well on them.

      Thanks for not only keeping us real but also shining a light toward a better way forward. As an academic, I think in terms of citing sources. Your framing of Claiming Your Lineage brings a new richness to the process. Love!

Ali Shapiro - March 20, 2013

I love this point Jen. As I’m writing my Masters thesis, I’m amazed at how much analysis goes into understanding those who have created theories, what they were most likely saying, who informed them, etc. and how long these breakthroughs have taken those who come before us. The pressure for new content does create this illusion that the curve for truly originally work should shorten as well but being creative is as challenging as ever – especially with all the distractions! Thank you for writing this. I feel like I can take a deep exhale.

    jenniferlouden - March 20, 2013

    you bet!

Emily Stewart - March 20, 2013


heatherlyone - March 20, 2013

Jen, I love this post. I think it’s especially important as there is increasing talk about copycatting online. It’s true, 99.9% of everything out there is recycled, but paying homage to your influences, pointing to those whose footsteps you are proudly following in (in your own way)….this is REALLY important. I see a number of people out there who are trying to pretend as though they invented certain concepts or ways of being online and really, they just look like ungenerous jerks to me. (is ungenerous a word? 😉 Thanks for writing another important piece. We need more voices like yours helping to set a better standard.

Paula - March 20, 2013

Here’s a perspective from an “cultural rhetoric” point of view: in “Western” cultures, academic and public texts start with an introduction to the subject, followed by a thesis, which is supposed to be “original” to that work or author. In other cultures, such texts often start with what may be seen by “Western” readers as a longish, rambling listing and annotation of the idea’s/writer’s lineage (great word!) to provide social/cultural/historical context. I’m not sure why that’s not done (or was done away with) in the West (hate the quotation marks and caps), but it probably has something to do with the emphasis “here” on individual achievement or saving time and getting to the point. Maybe it would be helpful to start including more lineage in our introductions. Just a thought.

Sarah Selecky - March 20, 2013

Jen: love love love. Coincidentally, I wrote an article about the necessity of influence (for writers) on my site a couple of weeks ago. Yay collective mind. I love to read writers who celebrate and acknowledge their influences – or lineage (beautiful way to describe this). The freshest voices belong to people who aren’t trying to be autonomous at all, but those who work in the stream, knowingly. Brava, and thank you for this piece. xo Sarah

Theresa - March 20, 2013

Wise words that feel like balm on a tender subject (and personal sore spot). Thank you for writing this.

Your thoughts on what can be done instead – taken to heart. Love this post – am printing it out and posting it as a gentle reminder of how to be gracious no matter which side of the coin you are sitting in this situation. XXOO

Maggie Pinque - March 20, 2013

Such a great post. The mindset of so many is that if it’s on the Internet it’s free – to use, to steal, to copy. Going back to school and writing a research paper really brought home how much one could take off the Internet and use as your own. My kids have to submit all their work via – it’s a site to check how much of a paper is plagiarized. More often than not it’s because the work isn’t cited properly.

I know for myself, I try VERY hard to credit all the photos I use on my blog and FB site with the original source. It’s a project tracking it down. Especially since I was originally just saving them for ME to use for me. Now that it’s out there in cyberspace I do as much due diligence as I can. (I am thinking this would be a GREAT job to give to an intern – find the original sources and update all the pictures…)

I have a friend who called out someone for stealing their photo. It wasn’t pretty.

Thanks again, Jen. 🙂

OH, one more thing – my whole blog this month is Rumi quotes. What I have discovered is that he said a lot of what is credited to many others over 700 years ago. So much for original thoughts, right?

    Bridget E Baker - March 20, 2013

    I love the way you put allll of this. I have had a friend, who is a great photographer, get her photos stolen and quotes put over them, without the photo being attributed to her. We have become guardians of her work, alerting her when we see her potentially stolen images.

    I also have been bothered when people share “memes” on Facebook, and they attribute the quote they are sharing in the meme, but not the source of the image that goes along with the quote. Now, they may not actually know the source of that image, but nevertheless, if they did not pay to, or have permission to share that image, it bothers me.

    I even have doubts that quotes that are credited are actually attributed to either the right person, or quoted properly. I am more of a fan of speaking honestly and freely, and using your own thoughts to back up what you are saying, rather than quotes. And if you use quotes, then attribute their source. Thank you!

Hannah - March 20, 2013

Great post Jennifer, this topic really needs to be on the table for public discussion. One of the most important creative lessons I learned was that it’s not so much what you say, but how you say it. Whatever you’re producing, someone will have done it before, but it’s your personal touch that makes it different.

Unfortunately, anything you put out in the public domain is ripe for stealing – whatever measures you put in place. If someone wants to live by passing off other people’s ideas and work as their own, it’s their loss: creation is such a meaningful and fulfilling activity. Karma will catch up with them eventually. There’s no shame in being influenced by many people, books, and ideas – I hope that we can start celebrating that rather than trying to cover it up!

Cara Brown - March 20, 2013

I wasn’t aware how much folks were taking on other’s work as their own, so the part I really LOVE about this is how freeing it is to claim what we’ve gotten from others and be our own version of it – especially for those of us who would not be sharing because it wasn’t our own original thing. “Steal Like an Artist” a fun little book, from which I got a lot of inspiration is right along these lines.

Thank you SO much for this.

Susan Wilkinson - March 20, 2013

Jen, I have followed you from afar for a couple of years, occasionally you’ll pop up in my world (this time from Abby Kerr) and I’ll catch something of yours. This post? This one was perfectly timed for me and so well done I had to stop and say thanks. I have a particularly difficult positioning problem that I think this has helped move me down the road towards solving. Appreciate that.

Laura Simms - March 20, 2013

Well said and an important conversation. I’m currently writing a big honkin’ digital guide, and as much as I can I’ve credited where the inspiration for certain exercises has come from. I feel a little funny about this because I seen it done so rarely, but I think it’s the Integrity Choice.

Of course it’s nice to “be original,” but there’s also great value in being able to synthesize and edit pre-existing information into something new. With credit, of course.

Catharine Bramkamp - March 20, 2013

Great summary of the sourcing challenge – I teach this very idea of re-purposing, influences, stealing, taking and re-writing in my college classes. Thanks for a great review of the challenge, I linked out to my facebook followers on Newbie Writers Group!

Lori Tuttle - March 20, 2013

I love you , Jen Louden!

Tracy Verdugo - March 20, 2013

Love this Jen!! And I LOVE all of the amazing teachers I have been inspired by. I talk about them throughout my workshops not only when exploring a technique I have learnt but also through sharing stories of what it means to be in community with each other and the symbiotic relationship that we have with each other through teaching and learning. I am always both student and teacher and NEVER afraid to name my inspiration! You always articulate so well my friend. Thank you :))

Everybody Steals (and other author and speaker horror stories) | Lucille Zimmerman - March 22, 2013

[…] The problem isn’t really about borrowing quotes, stories, ideas—we all know the ultimate compliment  is when someone reuses our material—it’s about giving credit. Teacher and author, Jennifer Louden, expounds on this idea of stealing and giving credit here.  […]

Jeffrey Davis - March 24, 2013

I wanted to add Maria P’s Curator’s Code to the mix here. (She received a lot of flack from the younger tech set for this):

These are my giants | Michelle Barry Franco | Presentation skills, writing and business growth for passion-driven solo and small business owners - March 24, 2013

[…] Jennifer Louden wrote a blog post this past week about stealing other people’s work and claimi…. The article was also about the fact that we all “steal” other people’s work. We use the insights and teaching of others to inform our own. That this is really the nature of “new ideas.” (You see the chocolate chip recipe connection here now?) This “stealing” process is at the heart of the popular Isaac Newton quote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” […]

Luna Jaffe - March 25, 2013

Well said, Jen! You have teased out some important distinctions. I just went to Creative Mornings, here in Portland, where Andy Biao spoke about Remix culture and the challenges of copyright. I think the majority of us simply want acknowledgment for the ideas we shape. Sadly, there are a few that think lawsuits are the answer, but I’m praying the voice of love is louder than the close-hearted approach of intellectual property attorneys. I have to say that I do worry a bit about how this will be for me as I birth my books into the world. So I will refer to your wisdom: assume innocence, call and connect, ask for clarity and name my influencers. Thank you!

Margaret Nichols - March 26, 2013

Wow, talk about collective thought- this is what I have been wanting to say and you said it best! Have been seeing so much of this lately and it has caused some horrible division in some circles near me. Truly, it’s been astounding; I come from a yogic lineage where you would only ever bow down to people before you in honor, and continue to do so…. well, forevs. Thank you for this graceful and timely blog. Will go share the sugar out of it and hopefully others will soak in this wisdom of yours!

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EvaBohemia - November 30, 2014

This is a good topic for discussion further. Someone on my friend’s list started copying my Energy Healing ads word for word and when I called her out on it she said she came up with the idea all on her own (apprx five minutes after my ad went live) and this went on for a little while so I completely stopped my ads until she was forced to move on to someone else on our friend’s list to copy. It didn’t take her long to move on but it was still very frustrating because not only was she my online competition that said she had no interest in what I was doing when I met her, now she was also my local area competitor as well charging double compared to what I charge. Citing sources is a great idea because very few copycats will ever share this information with others.

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