I’m proud of my friend Marcus for defending the indefensible — the multiple, maddening and redundant copies produced by contemporary capitalism — without defending capitalism itself. In Praise of Copying, his latest book, unfolds like a series of Burmese umbrellas, each inside the other. Quickly Marcus discovers the goddess Copia, mother of all copies. The cornucopia is her emblem: the Horn of Plenty. The only way to have lots and lots of anything — grains of barley or Barbie dolls — is to make duplicates. Besides, in this material universe, true duplicates don’t exist. Each Barbie is — under a microscope — unique.
In his breathtaking first chapter, "What Is a Copy?", Marcus details the varieties of Louis Vuitton bags. Once individually handcrafted in an atelier in Paris, these handbags now exist in multiple variants, some perfect duplicates, some absurdly amateurish. According to the Internet, only 1% of Louis Vuitton bags are made by the original company. Takashi Murakami, the Japanese artist, included counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags in a show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2008. Consumer capitalism has become a Talmud of products imitating and endlessly critiquing the ur-texts of Chanel, Levi’s, Louis Vuitton — plus Tom Cruise movies.
Marcus’ most remarkable contribution is the question: "Is one MP3 file different from another?" (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes!)
A unique work of art cannot be distinguished from a copy, philosophically — and therefore legally. For example, I am using words right now. Words are all copies of other words. In a sense, all writers are plagiarizing the dictionary. For example, how many other thinkers have already written: "I am using words right now"? Let me search for that sentence on Google.
You’re not going to believe this, but no one has ever employed that phrase before. I am more unique than I thought! Even when I’m trying not to be.
Marcus raises numerous questions. What are the ethics of copying? Is there "good" and "evil" copying? Should modern people try to make new works of art that have never been essayed before? Or is pure copying — like Christian and Buddhist monks duplicating the great Scriptures — as valid as "art"?
The central argument (as I see it) is that the Platonic ideal on which copyright law is based no longer holds. Yes, at one time Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, and crafty forgers made sleazy fakes. But now the "original" of the latest Jay-Z CD is essentially the same as the Chinese counterfeits. The Buddhist concept of sunyata ("emptiness") best explains all our contemporary stuff. The latest number one Hollywood movie (Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax) is based on a children’s book, which is a variant of The Cat in the Hat, which itself derives from African-American minstrel shows (according to The Dartmouth magazine — I just found this on Google, in 0.31 seconds). Copying allows variation, which makes our era conflictual, noisy and wildly fertile.
[Note: Titles cannot be copyrighted. That’s why I called this essay "A Tale of Two Cities."]