A York University English professor is convinced that copying is good for society.
In his new book, In Praise of Copying, Professor Marcus Boon argues that copying is necessary for the advancement of society and has long contributed to cultural progress. Boon asserts that the philosophical concept of copying is still poorly understood and must be revisited in today’s knowledge-driven economy. He uses a comparative perspective, analyzing various cultures and time periods, to examine what copying has come to mean and why it both intrigues and frightens people. He looks not only at economic motivations for preventing copying, but also at more fundamental social norms that reinforce the notion that copying is a bad thing, such as the fact that people frown on copying another person’s actions or gestures.
Boon works to illustrate why copying works and has been an important factor in shaping society, arguing that things such as pop music or recipes would not exist if people did not appropriate the ideas of others, and that luxury brands would not have come to such great prominence without the practice of counterfeiting, as knock-offs are “like ads for the real [thing]” (for fans of Louis Vuitton, there is an entire chapter dedicated to the phenomenon of knock-off handbags). On a more basic level, he notes that humans learn through imitation, and points out that industrial economies centre around making copies, often copies of things that are in the public domain. Boon also asserts that society is in the midst of a major, irreversible shift in how it views copying, and that the process of copying may actually benefit creators by increasing dissemination of their works.
Interestingly, Boon, in advocating for increased recognition of the value of keeping things in the public domain, draws attention to the notion that society’s aversion to copying disproportionately puts low-income people, including students, at a disadvantage, because it severely restricts their access to books and music. He describes students as “hungry for knowledge” and asserts that “the idea that they should only have access to [books, music, etc.] when they can afford to pay for it doesn’t entirely make sense.”
Will Professor Boon’s book make a difference in how our society thinks about copying or in how legislation protecting intellectual property is drafted? The existence of approaches such as the California school system’s mandatory “What’s the Diff?” program, which aims to teach schoolchildren that there is no difference between stealing physical property and “stealing” intellectual property, suggests that social norms against copying have been engrained to such a degree that it may take some time before Boon’s novel suggestions begin to take root. In Canada, the situation is mixed. If passed, Bill C-32, Canada’s new copyright reform bill, would ban breaking digital locks on media, but would give consumers new, limited rights to copy works for the purposes of parody, education and satire, would legalize format shifting and the creation of back-up versions of media, and would cap the fine for individuals caught violating copyright at $5000, a major reduction from the current maximum of $20 000. It is also worth noting that Boon is just the latest North American scholar to advocate for a change in how society approaches the concept of copying. Similar arguments have been voiced by author Lewis Hyde in his 2009 book Common as Air and by Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, in Free: The Future of a Radical Price, also published in 2009.