Instapaper just got some new fonts along with a nice upgrade for the new iPad’s retina display. In an insightful blog post and a recent episode of his 5by5 podcast Build and Analyze, Instapaper’s founder and sole developer Marco Arment discussed his thought process behind the decision to add new fonts, giving a great deal of credit to his former collaborators (and now competitors) at Readability.

The two services are in close competition despite differing business models, and that can sometimes cause some heated debate. In this case, one of the partners at Readability’s parent company posted a couple of less-than-gentlemanly tweets, implying Marco shouldn’t be praised for riding Readability’s coattails by adding new fonts.

Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a tempest in a teapot with support voiced from users on both sides.

Merlin Mann made one of the most insightful comparisons:

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Instapaper steals from Readability as much as Willie Dixon stole from Led Zeppelin.

Buy a calendar and a clue, guys.

– Merlin Mann (@hotdogsladies) March 17, 2012

As a blues fan, this tweet rang true, and the comparison goes deeper than it appears at first glance.

Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon

The Blues

Willie Dixon was one of the greatest musicians and songwriters in the history of American blues music and its more commercial successor, rock-and-roll.

An (incomplete) list of classic blues musicians who performed his songs is impressive:

As is an (incomplete) list of crossover blues musicians:

  • George Thorogood
  • Eric Clapton
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan

And a (very incomplete) list of rock and folk musicians:

  • The Doors
  • The Rolling Stones
  • Cream
  • Led Zeppelin
  • The Grateful Dead
  • Van Morrison
  • Peter, Paul and Mary

It’s easy to knock someone’s work as derivative, but in certain fields that’s expected and practically a compliment. Blues musicians traded songs back and forth so much that many were recorded by practically everyone.

Other examples of similarly prolific blues songwriters include Elmore James and Robert Johnson. Their songs echoed through two generations of musicians or more.

We should also keep in mind that the whole blues genre (and therefore much of the rock genre as well) is built around a common, simple chord progression.

Without the culture of borrowing, remixing and improving music that ran through the blues and rock-and-roll communities, many rock classics would never have existed.



Celestial Mechanics, Evolution, and Memes

This sort of remix and build culture can also be found throughout the field of scientific research.

Isaac Newton was far from the first to come up with a system to describe the motion of bodies through space. He didn’t discover celestial mechanics or develop a theory of gravity out of thin air. And he wasn’t even the only one to come up with differential and integral calculus. Despite these prior works, we don’t consider him any less brilliant. He took existing inputs and remixed them with a good dose of creativity and insight to create something new and true about the world.

Charles Darwin is rightly famous for his theory of natural selection. But his theories weren’t pulled out of the aether, they built upon the works of others.

Like Newton, Darwin wasn’t even the only one with the idea.

Others have taken Darwin’s theories even farther. Richard Dawkins introduced the idea that evolutionary principles can be applied to the growth of ideas and concepts themselves in his book The Selfish Gene. Research in this direction has created an entire (if controversial) scientific field called Memetics.

Scientific progress involves a back and forth remixing and revising of ideas. Credit is given where it is due, and any university professor will tell you that citations are the currency of the academic world. But without this culture where would we be today?



The Value of Ideas and “Intellectual Property”

In a classic post, Derek Sivers describes how ideas should be valued.

The whole post is worth a read (it’s very short), but his key point is this:

To me, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions.

Leibniz and Wallace were brilliant, but they didn’t get primary credit or lasting fame for calculus and evolution. Galileo and Kepler didn’t invent classical mechanics, but Newton’s theories never would have existed without them. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Led Zeppelin’s version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby”, or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Let Me Love You Baby” without Willie Dixon. And we wouldn’t have Willie Dixon or the blues without Robert Johnson, Elmore James and a host of others.

Similarly, Yahoo didn’t invent social networking. Neither did Facebook. Google didn’t invent the search engine. Apple didn’t invent the computer. Microsoft didn’t invent DOS. Readability didn’t invent the concept of a “read-it-later” service.

This is progress. This is evolution. This is how the human race moves forward.

…and they are some nice fonts.