George Bernard Shaw? SYSTEM magazine? Stanley B. Moore? Charles F. Brannan? Jimmy Durante? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a very valuable insight in the following saying that is credited to George Bernard Shaw:
If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.
I’ve seen this quotation mentioned several times during discussions about intellectual property rights, open source software, and copyright. But I have never seen a precise reference. Could you track this one down?
Quote Investigator: QI has not located any compelling evidence that George Bernard Shaw made this remark. The earliest citation found by QI closely conforming to this theme was dated 1917. Apples were not mentioned in the following advertisement titled “The Difference Between Dollars and Ideas” for a magazine called SYSTEM that was printed in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Instead of apples, dollars were swapped without perceptible advantage [CTSY]
You have a dollar.
I have a dollar.
Now you have my dollar.
We are no better off.
• • •
You have an idea.
I have an idea.
Now you have two ideas.
And I have two ideas.
• • •
That’s the difference.
• • •
There is another difference. A dollar does only so much work. It buys so many potatoes and no more. But an idea that fits your business may keep you in potatoes all your life. It may, incidentally, build you a palace to eat them in!
• • •
It was some such philosophy as this that brought the magazine SYSTEM into being sixteen years ago. SYSTEM was (and is) a swapping-place for business ideas.
The same advertisement for SYSTEM magazine was printed in other periodicals such as the New York Times [NYSY]. In succeeding decades the saying was rephrased and reprinted in a variety of publications and books.
The earliest evidence found by QI of apples being used for illustrative purposes instead of dollars was dated 1949, and the speaker was a Secretary of Agriculture in the United States. The words appeared in an education news journal which cited a television broadcast [NBCB]:
… if you have an apple and I have an apple, and we swap apples — we each end up with only one apple. But if you and I have an idea and we swap ideas — we each end up with two ideas.
— Charles F. Brannan, Secretary of Agriculture, from a broadcast over NBC, April 3, 1949
George Bernard Shaw was a famously witty individual and many adages of uncertain provenance have been credited to him. His name is powerfully magnetic in the world of quotations, and it attracts stray attributions. By 1974 the version of the saying with apples and ideas was ascribed to Shaw. The details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.