Copying is a great way to learn new things.
Sometimes you can learn by copying the entirety of the work, or just a part of it. A good example is copying the drawings of others to learn how to do it yourself. Copying drawings works both when you replicate every line of the drawing to get a sense for how the whole piece came together, and also when you focus on one aspect (say, the eye of a portrait) and learn from it, even if you don’t replicate the whole thing.
There are situations however where copying a painting is counterproductive. If I learn how to draw eyes from a certain painter, but that style does not jive well with how I paint faces, it won’t help me draw better portraits. Another failure mode of copying someone else’s painting could be to limit my merits to being good at imitating.
Let’s look at another example: investing.
To be a great stock trader you need to consistently have one more good trade than bad. That means almost half of all your trades can be a loss, and still be great at the job.
To be a great VC, you need a few of your investments to return +10X. What happens with the rest matter little to your performance. for VCs, bad decisions are the vast majority.
Unless you copy all the decisions (or have the luck to copy only those that matter), you can find yourself copying most decisions from an excellent trader or VC and still lose all your money.
Yet, on bull markets, there is a self-fulfilling cycle that can make copying investments a sound strategy. People are flush with cash, and FOMO led to rising valuations (markups in private markets), without much regard for fundamentals
The challenge then is to know if you are in a situation where copying is advantageous, or not.
One clear way to benefit from copying is to use it as a way to understand how the thing was done, the output being useful only as a reference for the end of a process, not as a goal in itself.
Another way to benefit from copying is to do it in order to get a missing piece of a bigger thing you are building. If you are sculpting a marbled goat, and you are struggling to chisel the goat’s beard, you might benefit from seeing how someone else did it. Then, you can integrate it into your work.
Related to these two points, copying is most useful when you are copying a ton of different people. It is easier to understand different techniques and to judge different ideas when you can put one next to another.
It also follows from there that, there is a certain amount of productive copying; doing work without copying is equally important.
Copying has a lot of negative connotations. I think they are mostly misunderstanding about stealing.
To steal means to take from someone so that that person can no longer have the thing. With physical objects, that is straightforward. With art, code, or ideas, is a bit fuzzier, but the core remains: if you copy what someone else did, and use it in a way such that the original creator cannot longer use it (you copy exactly and claim to be the original, or copy and the respect explicit rules the owner of the original imposed, etc) then you are stealing.
Saying “copying is good” or “copying is bad” are fairly empty statements. How you copy someone else’s work, and what you do with what you copy makes it either a great thing or a terrible thing, or anything in between.
These sorts of distinctions are very important when sharing concepts and ideas with others. To value copying other people’s work or being opportunistic to add another example, can mean very different things depending on how you define the activities and their purpose.