Prof’s new book argues that copying is necessary to our evolution

A new book by a York University professor argues that the act of copying, much maligned in our culture, is fundamentally necessary to our evolution.

In Praise of Copying, which was officially launched last night in Toronto, explores different aspects of copying and looks at everything from quilting and cooking to gang warfare and martial arts as cultures of the copy. Published by Harvard University Press, it features an entire chapter on the saga of Louis Vuitton and the fake handbags which have become ubiquitous today.

“Teaching contemporary literature and culture at a university, I was interested in students’ attitudes about sampling, cutting and pasting, plagiarism, downloading and such matters,” says author Marcus Boon, a professor in York’s Department of English in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

“What struck me is that they were completely unable to justify their interest in these things – mostly because they involve copying and they’d repeatedly been told that copying is bad. At the same time,” he says, “when I looked at the literature on intellectual property, I was struck by the fact that most of it was written by legal scholars, who seemed to offer no analysis of copying itself, beyond the fact that it was a useful tool that could also be misused. So I wanted to rethink the idea of copying, and show how fundamental philosophical issues shape the way we think about it today.”

The book details how the dominant legal-political structures that define copying obscure the broader processes of imitation that have constituted human communities for ages, and that continue to shape subcultures today. In Praise of Copying draws on contemporary art, music and film, the history of aesthetics, critical theory, and Buddhist philosophy and practice to illustrate how and why copying works – what the sources of its power are and what political stakes are involved if we re-negotiate the way we value copying in the age of globalization.

Boon asks why copying another person’s actions or works makes us so uncomfortable. “If you really think about it, is there anything that doesn’t involve some form of copying? In order to speak and to learn, we have to copy. We can talk about plagiarism, and it’s true that very few people would say it’s good to pass off another’s work as your own,” says Boon. “But industrial economies are built around making copies, most of which have their origin in something that used to belong to the public domain.”

He argues that we should all consider and confront the ways in which our lives are shaped by the act of copying: “We all do it, and our laws should reflect this. As a society, we should be asking ourselves what is the most profound or joyful use of our capacities for copying. In other words, it’s not a question of whether we should copy or not – but how we copy and what.”

In Praise of Copying was launched at the The Annex Live, 296 Brunswick Avenue in downtown Toronto, presented by This Is Not A Reading Series.

To download a free pdf of the book, visit the In Praise of Copying web page on the Harvard University Press website.