JJ Abrams on Ripping Off The Work of Others

I just finished watching J.J. Abrams’ TED talk where he discussed the “mystery box” concept. If you have a few minutes, go check it out in full. He specifically talked about something that I’ve been more aware of recently. Which is people who rip stuff off. A couple of websites have slipped through my review here on UnmatchedStyle recently where they’ve been rip offs, or pretty close to, or super heavily influenced by, however you want to say it.

JJ Abrams talked about ripp offs specifically. What was really interesting to me is that he got into it because he was talking about some of his favorite scenes in movies, and what makes them really great scenes. He used an example of “Alien,” where you never really see the alien monster full on for a long time, and it builds this mystique and mystery. When they finally reveal it, it’s even more scary than when they didn’t.

He illustrated his concept further discussing a scene from “Jaws.” He said, “Well, this is a typical scene from ‘Jaws’ that you’d expect,” and he showed one where some lady gets eaten by the shark.

He said, “But this is the scene that really makes the movie,” and he showed a scene with the main character, he’s sitting at a table. The scene was a minute and a half long. He’s sitting at a table. He’s drinking coffee and his young son who’s five or six or whatever, sitting there eating cereal or whatever he was doing. They were just staring at each other, and he was watching his son, just trying to figure out what he’s going to do. He’s contemplating his life. What he’s going to do as a man. What is his job turning into? What is he there for?

He’s watching his son, and at the end he looks over at his son and he says, “Hey, come here. Give me a kiss.” His son’s like, “Why?” He says, “Because I need it.” That’s the end of the scene. It’s a really great scene. It really gets you to invest in this character. You really start liking this guy. You want him to succeed.

Those are the things in great movies that really get us involved in the movie. It’s that investment in character. That’s a great thing. He says, “People who rip movies off, they always make a mistake because they rip off the first scene. They rip off the scene of the shark. If you’re going to rip something off, don’t rip off this obvious part. Rip off the good stuff. Rip off the stuff that makes sense. Rip off the character. Steal the great scene. Make it really be about the right thing.”

I find that’s really what people are doing when they rip off websites. They’re stealing the wrong things. They’re stealing the colors, or the texture, or the background, or the way the form is laid out or something obvious. They never really seem to be able to copy the right thing. They never steal the subtlety or the level of craft that’s in the original. The soul… I think that’s because you can’t recreate something like that. If something is original in and of itself, you just can’t copy it. Every copy is a weaker representation of the original.

What do you think?


Gene Crawford

With over a decade of experience in the industry he has overseen the design and architecture of hundreds of web sites and applications. An active member in the design community, he's the editor & producer of unmatchedstyle.com, the ConvergeSE, ConvergeFL, ConvergeRVA and the Breaking Development conference series.