Copying, Culture, and Values


            Good evening.  I’d like to start by thanking our host, Reinhold Schmüker, for the invitation to think more deeply about copyright and copying in general, to join this conference and to meet so many other scholars concerned with the nature of copying and its implications. Thanks also, of course, to the Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Forschung of Universität Bielefeld for support for this conference.  And after these thanks, an apology:  Over the years, you sometimes speak early in a conference and sometimes near the end, but I’ve never spoken right before a World Cup soccer match.  (poss. Add. Comment)

As we all know from Reinhold’s introductory essay to the conferees, the goal of our meeting is to think deeply about the nature of copying and the values that we should associate with it.  This has, frankly been a challenge.  It has also been a challenge to explain the topic of the conference to others.  When you tell other academics you are going to an “ethics of copying” conference they naturally guess that it is a “copyright ethics” conference.  And you have to say, no, not exactly.  And then they say, oh, it’s about plagiarism.  And you have to say, no, not exactly.  It’s more about the nature of copying and the values associated with it.  And then you lose everyone.  Because it is not obvious, until you start thinking about it, that copying has a nature.  Copying seems, well, derivative. 

In the past, I have thought about copying at the level of social and economic history and law and public policy, but a point I took from Reinhold’s essay was that we might need to think outside of the traditional framework for copyright ethics, and if you look at the diversity of approaches in the scholars he has brought together, I think it is safe to infer that this is part of our challenge in the next few days.  So I have a thesis to offer about how to think outside our typical academic ways of framing copyright ethics, but before offering that thesis, I would like to make a few remarks about the standard and some non-standard ways of organizing thought about copying.   

If we are asking questions about the immediate causal determinants of modern copyright values and cultural norms, then the social/political/legal frame is still the right level to think on.  Many of us are familiar with the history of modern copyright in the United Kingdom, which begins with the widespread use of the printing press and leads to the 1709 Statute of Anne, ending the royal monopoly of the Stationer’s Company.  While this history is specific to anglo-american legal and social thought, the principles at stake have a universality to them that is worth recalling before we move into the thesis I hope to advance tonight. 

One of the principles at stake in the so-called “Battle of the Books,” which culminated in the legal case, Donaldson vs. Beckett, argued before the House of Lords in 1774, had to do with the question of whether ownership of intellectual property was a natural property right or a statutory right.  The case in question affirmed the statutory approach, which defeated the concept of perpetual copyright.  From this point forward the argument that intellectual property was equivalent to real property (and hence that one has a natural and perpetual right to it) found no mainstream adherents.  Looking back, we can see that Enlightenment ideals such as the promotion of learning were being balanced with the new market ethic that suggested that an author should be able to make a living from his or her intellectual production.   As I said, if you are trying to understand the forces that shaped modern copyright ethics, the social and political level is the right one to focus on.

But there are many other ways to frame copyright values aside from the soci-political and historical, and many of them are represented in the work of the conference.  In preparing for this conference, I took some time to research some of the citations in Reinhold’s essay that I was unfamiliar with and some of the conferees’ work. That is, until I ran out of time and languages.  This is an impressive and diverse group.  There is the logical level of analysis, the aesthetic and ontological level of analysis, the artefactual level of analysis (something I was not very familiar with).  We have legal level of analysts, and some radical analysis which is sometime labelled in the North American library community as the “copyleft” vs. the “copyright.” 

In addition to these more or less “standard” ways of framing our topic, there is what I will call a Borgesian classification of copying.  Some of you may recall Michel Foucault’s reference in The Order of Things to Jorge Luis Borges’ refreshingly non-standard way of classifying animals in his 1942 essay, El idioma Analitico de John Wilkins.  Borges claims to be quoting from a classification of animals in a Chinese encyclopedia, where he finds the following classification of animals:  animals belonging to the emperor, tame, embalmed, suckling pigs, sirens, fabulous, stray dogs, and so on.  The point is that our classifications of things look more natural to us than they perhaps are.  If we want to think in original ways, sometimes we need to break out of our habits of classification.  After reading Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, one of the most interesting texts in Reinhold’s conceptual essay for the conference, I realized that I needed to at least temporarily set aside some of the classifications that kept pulling me back to the legal and public policy level of analysis.  While policy is something we need to somehow arrive at (as our conference organization also suggests), original thinking may require the path to be circuitous.

In my Borgesian classification of copying there are three categories:  1) The Subject; 2) Influence; and 3) The Secret.   A few notes on these and then I will offer and argue for a thesis. 

The Subject.  The human subject is both the subject who makes copies, in the very old days at the Xerox machine, and still by writing and publication, but also now more by disseminating emails with pdfs attached and by creating web pages.  But the subject is not just a subject who makes copies, but, quite literally, the subject is itself a copy, a genetic replicant, though for better or worse not a faithful replicant.  As Marcus Boon develops this thought, copying is transformation which creates an illusion of permanence.  The act of love and reproduction are implicated in this.  We believe, rightly and wrongly, that reproduction is a path to permanence.  Boon’s takes this to a metaphysical and Buddhist level which is surprising, enchanting, and even a little disturbing.

Influence.  Not all copying concerns us, but only copying that can influence us is motivated and relevant.  A computer set to make and erase copies of its own programs is not of interest, for example.  Another way to put this is to say that we are copies, at a genetic level, that worry about being copies at a phenomenological level.  In Richard Rorty’s famous essay on “The Contingency of Selfhood,” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, he quotes a poem by Philip Larkin which poignantly expresses this anxiety of being a copy, the idea that one’s uniqueness is somehow less than what we think it is because it is in the end a selection from existing choices. This is also what Harold Bloom called the poet’s “anxiety of influence,” the horror of finding himself to be only a copy or replica[1].

The Secret.  I have a strong bias to associate the “copy” with dissemination and disclosure, but we don’t just copy to inform, we also copy to conceal and to deceive.  Boon discusses this, from the concerns Plato had about mimesis, but also in the way we use copying and cammoflage in war.  The famous theoretical biologist, Robert Trivers also reminds us that organisms copy as much or more to keep secrets as to share truths.  In his recent book, The Folly of Fools, he details myriad ways in which copying and imitation work in nature to promote the success of an organism by deception.   The ultimate form of this is self-deception; the ability to use a distorted copy of truth (a lie) more effectively by convincing ourselves of its truth. 

Like Borges’ classification of animals, our Borgesian classification of copies collapses on itself;  the subject is a copy that is anxious about being a copy – merely influenced and not original – and promotes itself by keeping this truth a secret from itself.   But perhaps this effort still tells us something useful.  In addition to escaping the so-called “natural” – in this case academic – classification in terms of politics, law, aesthetics, logic, and ontology, it reminds us that we are concerned with the tiniest subset of copying and replication in nature; the part that matters to a live and self-aware subject.

  After thinking about the various ways that we address copying in our work and the various ways that one might create frameworks for thinking about the nature of copying, I asked myself what the most fundamental level of analysis of copying could be if not the socio-political.  Of course in philosophy the obvious answer might be the ontological or metaphysical level.  But I want to argue, and this is my thesis, that the most fundamental level of analysis for discovering the values involved in copying is the anthropological.  This came a bit as a surprise to me since, again, I thought of the moment of the spread of literacy through the printed word as the quintessential moment for values underlying copying.  By contrast, the anthropological frame takes us into the pre-history of the species and into disciplines that are almost as speculative as philosophy. 

I have two kinds of arguments for the claim that the most fundamental level of analysis for discovering the values involved in copying is the anthropological.  The first are arguments connecting the origin and growth of culture with copying, especially cultural learning and social cognition.  The second is more indirect.  I want to suggest two thought experiments which might help establish the deep naturalness of our access to individual and collective memory (mental copies).  So here we go.

The anthropological frame focuses our attention on the part of human pre-history during which we became distinctively human, and this is generally agreed to be the period of time during which our brains grew in size (doubling and eventually tripling in volume) and, more specifically, when we developed the capacity for culture.  The details of this story are still murky, but forensic anthropology, contemporary genetics and epigenetics, as well as theoretical work on cooperation and the conditions under which values stabilize themselves in populations have helped us tell an increasingly persuasive story about how our ancestors may have transitioned from hunters and gatherers to tribes capable of collective learning and enforcing collective values. 

In the first case, we could not have values until we could copy and communicate intentional states.  This ability, which we call social cognition, is organically seated in the pre-frontal cortex.  We are quite literally “mind readers;” at least we can make copies of others’ intentions in our own minds up to the point at which others can conceal or make secret their intentions.  Individuals vary in this skill, but it is becoming hard to imagine a naturalistic account of culture that does not give logical priority to this capacity. 

While there is no settled theory about cultural learning itself, and ideas like the Baldwin effect and gene-culture co-evolution remain problematic and controversial, there are some remarkable features of Paleolithic culture that relate to copying.  The hand axe is a small stone tool that homo erectus developed as early as 2.4 million years ago.  Version 2.0 of the hand axe is the Acheulean axe, which is worked on both sides and has a longer cutting edge than the earlier Oldwalean axe.  One of the puzzling features of the Acheulean axe is that we find piles and piles of them at individual sites – far more than needed for practical purposes.  This has led some anthropologists to suggest that Achulean axes played a role in sexual selection, as if our ancestors advertised their fitness in part by showing how many copies of axes they could make.  Another interesting feature of Achulean axes is their uniformity over vast geographic areas, from Africa and Europe through Asia.  The likely hypothesis is that production of this artefact was as natural to early humans as language.  In other words, at least some of the conditions for producing this artefact became hardwired in us the way  language is.  Copying, learning, mental adaptations, and social status seem inextricably linked.  If you want to develop a deep theory about copying, you might do well to study hand axes.  Copying is at least fundamental to being human, to learning, and to human forms of cooperation.  While I do not have space in this version of the paper to discuss the last point about social cooperation, a distinct line of evidence and argumentation could connect social cognition and the establishment and stabilization of values in a population of humans.  We appear to have learned this beginning with campsites, early divisions of labor, and enforcement of social rules through punishment.

The second direct argument I would like to make for anthropology as the fundamental level of explanation for understanding copying is, fortunately, more contemporary.   It is widely agreed that cultures imitate or decline to imitate other cultures as part of the process for conserving and changing their collective identity.  Having a cultural identity – being Italian, German, American, etc. matters in ways that we are still theorizing.  One way to think about this is that our identities are “heuristics” or shortcuts for packages of values and strategies for living that we advert to.  Conservatism about identity makes sense if the package is tested by time, but lack of innovation can be deadly if cultural behaviors and values persist in the face of adverse outcomes.  The fate of Easter Island culture is a textbook example. 

On the positive side, however, cultural innovations are diffused through imitation; that is, copying.  We see this in the way cultures imitate dominant other cultures’ technologies and this is particularly clear in the archaeological record of Mediterranean cultures, where so many groups collided and influenced each other and left abundant trash behind for archeologists to sift through.  When Romans needed to jumpstart their shipbuilding technology in the third century B.C., they captured a superior Carthiginian ship and used it as a model, numbering the joints to replicate it by the hundreds until they could innovate ships on their own.[2]  Almost every ancient and modern culture has done the same.  Whether the technology is pottery, warships, or computers, reverse engineering the competitions’ product (or simple enticing, capturing, or enslaving the technologists) is a ubiquitous human strategy.  Linguistic diffusion seems to follow this pattern.[3]

The modern defense of intellectual freedom gives us a particularly positive way of looking at cultural copying and imitation.  As many of you know, in On Liberty, John Stuart Mill gives the now classic liberal defense of intellectual freedom by arguing for a kind of “social epistemology.”  Most people recall his famous liberty principle – that the only reason government is entitled to interfere with others is for the prevention of harm to third parties.  But Mill’s defense of intellectual freedom is roughly that we all learn from the diversity of ideas and lifestyles that this protection leads to.  By protecting liberty of expression of ideas and lifestyles, the society is in a better position to know which ideas are true and which lifestyles are successful.  Copying and replication come into play in Mill’s progressivism both in the proliferation of ideas and in the imitation of them. 

The importance of the anthropological frame of reference for understanding the ethics of copying is based on both the original connection of copying to human culture and learning and the contemporary view that intellectual freedom requires free access to ideas, including the ability to transform them through expression and experimentation. 






[1] Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford Univeristy Press, 1973), p. 80.

[2] David Abulafia, The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Oxford UP), 2011, 180.

[3] David Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasion Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Princeton UP), 2010.