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  • The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law
  • Peter Krapp (bio)
The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law Rosemary Coombe Duke University Press, 1998

Property law codifies the claims of economic life: custody or control of things, freedom of industry and contract, claims to promised advantages, and claims to be insured against interference. Civilized society is expected to secure your control of your labor, your discovery, your acquisition. On the other hand, Roman jurists had already recognized that not everything is to be controlled by individuals, for it would run counter to the purpose of the commons such as air, light, water, public buildings. When legal philosophy after Hegel calls property a realization of the idea of liberty (making one's will objective in the world involves an exercise of personality with respect to things), it formalizes how one may secure the relation of a physical person, or a will, to certain objects. In this sense, individual ownership might be said to grow out of group rights, or seen as an institution securing maximum interests (or satisfying minimal wants). But the cultural conditions of late capitalism demand quite a few steps beyond intellectual property as it was framed in the eighteenth century for the bourgeois sphere. Today, the unique publicity rights of celebrities founder because the basis of their notoriety is already a pop montage; the recognition of creativity demanded by law amounts to an appropriation that stretches our inherited notions of authorship. Conceptions of cultural identity are undermined by the fact that no system of authentication is ever free from disruption by alterity and difference, and the managerial revolution in intellectual property—the division of ownership and control—poses challenges in our "attention economy" that question the very roots of intellectual property law. [End Page 198]

Rosemary Coombe's volume on The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties offers a fascinating romp through consumer culture. Her book's declared political concern is that, under existing intellectual property doctrine, "criminal charges may be laid by state officials whose sense of the public interest seems shaped primarily by profit-oriented actors" (4). Coombe calls for "a critical cultural studies of intellectual property" and invokes the anthropological roots of cultural studies as a means to criticize intellectual property doctrines that rely on a philosophical tradition. The majority of the pieces collected in this book appeared in various journals between 1991 and 1998 and unmistakably display the theoretical currents of that decade. Coombe refers to Foucault and de Certeau, Derrida and Gramsci, Žižek and Jameson in her wide-ranging dissections of the legalese propping up the business of television and soda, the selling of T-shirts, and the booms and busts of the celebrity industry. However, the core of her work is an anthropological view of intellectual property issues. It is amusing when Coombe observes how "cultural studies dilute anthropology's trademark" (16), but it also leads to a pivotal issue of her book. Her legal analysis draws on the ethnographic paradigm of cultural studies in support of her political criticism of the extant frameworks of intellectual property doctrine. Rousseau had already rebuked Hobbes for passing off as a general theory of humanity what was only a theory of the needs and interests of his contemporaries. Yet Coombe's cultural anthropology seems untroubled by the fact that political theory, while certainly not ignoring ethnological research, must question any simplification of highly differentiated conflicts of interests to a central perspective. Throughout the last century, political scientists have been charging that anthropologists and ethnologists insufficiently differentiate between power and authority and ignore the informal aspect of social pressure as the dominant means of social control. Coombe sidesteps this problem by focusing on cultural authorship in a wide sense, with reference to Foucault's discourse and to the arbitrary character of some judicial decisions about intellectual property and social control (100). In calling for a critical review of the framework in legal scholarship on intellectual property, Coombe takes aboard twentieth-century cultural theories from Bakhtin and Benjamin to Baudrillard, from Habermas to Foucault, and on to the latest wave in cultural studies: [End Page 199] the study...


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