What if copying, rather than being an aberration or a mistake or a crime, is a fundamental condition or requirement for anything, human or not, to exist at all?
Is there anything that does not involve “copying”? And if that is the case, why exactly does copying another person’s actions or works make us so uncomfortable? Furthermore, having recognized copying for what it is-what kind of freedom do we have to transform the imposed mimetic structures that frame us, internally and externally, individually and as societies?
Copying is pervasive in contemporary culture, yet at the same time subject to laws, restrictions, and attitudes that suggest that it is wrong and shouldn’t be happening. On the one hand, many of the most visible aspects of contemporary culture-the art of Takashi Murakami or Elizabeth Peyton, electronic music ranging from hip-hop and techno to dub-step and EDM, BitTorrent and other digital networks of distribution, software tools like Google Earth or Photoshop, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, movies like Borat or Avengers rely explicitly on something we call “copying.”
It seems that we find real insight into what human beings and the universe is like through thinking about how and what we copy.
Many of the most vibrant aspects of contemporary culture indicate an obsession with the act of copying and the production of copies, and it seems that we find real insight into what human beings and the universe is like through thinking about how and what we copy. On the other hand, every time we install a new piece of software, listen to music, or watch a movie, we encounter the world of copyright and intellectual property law and the set of restrictions that have been placed around our access to and use of objects, processes, and ideas produced by the act of copying.
Simultaneously, as our ability to make copies expands at both the macro (geophysics and the manipulation of global weather systems) and micro (nanotechnology and the fabrication and replication of matter from the atom up) levels, these same laws are used by corporations to appropriate, copy, and sell increasingly large parts of what was once the “public domain.”
People live in a constant state of vague, unarticulated guilt or duplicity. Yet also grudgingly accepting the arguments against what they are doing.
People live in a constant state of vague, unarticulated guilt or duplicity, filesharing, downloading music, imitating styles, yet also grudgingly accepting the arguments against what they are doing, which are based on important but unexamined concepts like property, ownership, originality, authenticity-concepts which have been given very particular meanings by states and corporations at the beginning ginning of the twenty-first century.
The word “copyright” (nearly 10.5 billion hits on Google) itself sounds a little desperate, as though one had to suture the words “copy” and “right” together for them to associate consistently. Just to put that number in perspective, “freedom” gets only 315 million Google hits and “truth” 312 million-a factor of ten less than “copyright.” Even “sex” gets only 876 million hits, in case you’re wondering.
Don’t you think that the concept of “copyright” is a little overdetermined? The “problem” of copying is not necessarily a legal or ethical one in the strict sense of those words. It cannot be resolved by having people take a stand on either side of a line that says that copying is either good or bad or that copyright and intellectual property laws should be supported or abandoned. Such laws have great consequences, and it is necessary that they be debated and addressed-as is being done by legal scholars.
A very particular set of philosophical framings of copying, along with the paradoxes, aporias, and internal contradictions that sustain them, are now being imposed around the world through globalization and the intellectual property regimes that accompany it.
The problem is that there seems to be an almost total lack of context for understanding what it means to copy, what a copy is, what the uses of copying are. A very particular set of philosophical framings of copying, along with the paradoxes, aporias, and internal contradictions that sustain them, emerging out of European and American histories, are now being imposed around the world through globalization and the intellectual property regimes that accompany it.
At the same time, the existence of practices of copying in the premodern West, in the margins of Western culture, and in non-Western cultures has been overlooked, and the fact that different societies have had attitudes to copying that differ radically from our own has been ignored.
Copying is not just something human-it is a part of how the universe functions and manifests.
Copying is a fundamental part of being human, that we could not be human without copying, and that we can and should celebrate this aspect of ourselves in full awareness of our situation. Copying is not just something human-it is a part of how the universe functions and manifests.
The issue of regulating copying, of setting up laws restricting or encouraging copying, is secondary to that of recognizing the omnipresence and nature of copies and copying in human societies and beyond. What is happening? How do ideas regarding copying emerge from fundamental, unresolved issues concerning human consciousness, objectivity, language, and nature?
Many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call “copying” and those we call “not copying” are false. Phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us. Indeed, they are crucial factors in our ability to make sense of ourselves and the world. I believe that only through recognizing this can we understand the world that we find ourselves in, the world that, to some degree, we have chosen to make.
We live at a time when a radical vision of justice-of the fair distribution of opportunities, possibilities, things, necessities, and luxuries is lacking.
We live at a time when a radical vision of justice-of the fair distribution of opportunities, possibilities, things, necessities, and luxuries is lacking. It died with the death of existing communist societies, which asserted a vision of another way of doing things, sharing things, even if most of them pitifully failed to live up to this vision. Copying seems to manifest as a pressing issue at moments where there is a radical shift in societies.
The Statute of Anne of 1709, the first copyright law, was in part a rearguard effort to protect the rights of the Stationers Company in the face of the effects of the English Revolution; copyright and patent law was inscribed in Article 1, section 8 of the U.S. Constitution (1787), and in a law of 1793 in France. The Russian Revolution was accompanied by a variety of changes to copyright law (which had hitherto been in line with those of bourgeois European law), including a 1923 decree nationalizing the works of authors such as Tolstoy, Gogol, and Chekhov.
The ideologies that sustain the illusion of the permanence and naturalness of a particular society disintegrate, revealing the various processes which sustain such societies.
Why should this be so? Not necessarily because at such moments more people are engaged in acts of copying or the production of copies, but because the ideologies that sustain the illusion of the permanence and naturalness of a particular society disintegrate, revealing the various processes which sustain such societies.
Such as imitation. Clearly, we are living through such a shift right now, but without any particular sustaining vision of what lies beyond. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than coming up with a new illusion and trademarking it, we have an opportunity to recognize what our situation consists of. “Copying” is just one word in one language, and apparently trivial matter-yet, for reasons which I will explore, an activity that exceeds itself in every way, opening up to a vastness as surprising as it is undeniable.
This article was adapted from Marcus Boone, In Praise of Copying.