The sincerest form of flattery

Copying is everywhere in nature and in human life, and although a general free-for-all isn’t perhaps the answer, a re-examination of what restrictions on copying can realistically mean is urgently needed

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing Reporter

Sun, Jan 16, 2011 - Page 14

In many Asian countries, perhaps all, imitation products are available wherever you look. Whether it’s fake Louis Vuitton handbags (of which Taiwan is cited in this book as having five different grades, some more expensive than the originals), Gucci shirts or Adidas running shoes, pirated Harry Potter books, DVDs or CDs, all are more or less openly on sale on every hand.

At first glance, and to some extent in the final analysis too if Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying is to be believed, this is not altogether a bad thing. The rich nations, whose creations it is that are almost invariably being copied, may howl in protest, and demand promises to clean up the infamous trade at high-level intergovernmental meetings, but at street level, especially where there are tourists in evidence, things carry on to almost everyone’s satisfaction. The tourists are delighted by the low prices, the traders are making good money, and the police are pocketing their bribes and looking the other way. Once a month everyone shuts up shop for 10 minutes while the authorities slowly pace the streets, then write reports saying they’ve seen no counterfeit goods being sold in their area, reports that are then presumably forwarded to the Western nations as proof that the Asian governments’ anti-piracy measures are indeed taking effect.

Meanwhile, copyright warnings are prominently displayed even on the duplicated goods themselves (“violations will be prosecuted according to the civil law and the penal code”). But what copyright precisely is, and who decides who it is that has the exclusive right to make copies, is one of the many questions this book attempts to answer.

Marcus Boon teaches at Toronto’s York University and has been running a course on copies and copying for several years. The general drift of his book is that copying is everywhere in nature and in human life, and that whereas a general free-for-all isn’t perhaps the answer, a re-examination of what restrictions on copying can realistically mean in the modern world, especially the modern digital world, is urgently needed.

He’s amusing on the problem academics have these days discerning which of their students’ essays are copied from online sources, which craftily adapted from them, and which wholly original. But even here he defends the inveterate copiers, arguing that like good forgers they must have paid close attention to their originals, which can’t be a bad thing. He also relates the difficulties he’s encountered when assembling term course packs, including as they do photocopied materials about which universities have complex rules that are often hard to comply with.

But it’s the computer world that presents the greatest problems, and offers the greatest possibilities. In a culture of downloads, file-sharing and networks that, even after the demise of Napster nearly a decade ago, still offers ever-increasing opportunities for duplication, and not only in music, control is very hard. And more and more things become possible as the years pass.

Boon doesn’t leave a stone unturned when examining the phenomenon of copying in general. He considers Plato’s concept of mimesis, and his bizarre idea that all things are imperfect copies of celestial ideals. (Would Plato really argue for a divine version of a Louis Vuitton handbag? Boon sees a Buddhist as very sensibly asking). He then goes on to look at montages, Shakespeare’s liberties with earlier texts and plots, the fact that 17th-century painters had studios where assistants painted parts of every painting even though the finished product would be attributed to “Rembrandt,” Gandhi’s dream of spinning-wheels for all to bypass industrial duplication, and modern Chinese “Buddha machines” with their tiny speakers and endlessly reduplicated mantras.

Copyright law, Boon believes, is a product of industrial capitalism. Everyone copied, mimicked and borrowed before that, and in nature everything still does. The legal placing of copyright law in a system of property and ownership rights, in other words, ignores the universal nature of copying itself. In particular it ignores the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and interdependence, and Boon is strongly drawn to Buddhism. None of this world will last, it posits, and everything’s inter-related anyway, so isn’t this idea of ownership and punitive penalties to be paid really rather selfish and small-minded?

Boon notes that his own title is a partial imitation of the great Renaissance humanist Erasmus’ book In Praise of Folly. He doesn’t overlook the irony either that his book is clearly marked “Copyright 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.” But this is small beer, perhaps, compared to phenomena such as China’s Harry Potter and the Hiking Dragon or the fictional hero Porri Gatter of Belarus.

In Praise of Copying was completed too early for the inclusion of the Wikileaks affair, but clearly this too could come under the heading of duplication — the copying of diplomatic e-mails and their publication in newspapers. But then newspapers themselves are these days an issue as well, and the Taipei Times itself could be considered as part of the progressive vanguard in being 100 percent available, and for free, online.

Boon says he appreciates the need for checks and balances. Even so, you can’t help feeling that, in the non-academic part of his soul, what he really believes is summed up in the following sentence, with its breathtaking ending: “One possible and provisional answer to many of the problems that plague humanity today, particularly those predicated on scarcity, is simply to make more copies and distribute them freely — as in the story of Jesus and the feeding of the five thousand.”

The issues this excellent book discusses can only become more urgent as a generation comes to power that simply takes a free exchange of information for granted.