- The Political Economy of Copying
Much depends on copying. Yet, in today’s digitally saturated world, copying is so pervasive that it can be difficult to take stock of its significance and ubiquity. Obviously, this includes the innumerable times per day that people around the world copy and paste passwords, sentences, and paragraphs. It also includes every instant when data is synced between computers and smartphones or backed up to the cloud. Every time you attach a file to an email, a copy of that file is created. Before you can read a story from a news website—or look at any webpage, for that matter—it must first be copied to your electronic device. Music downloads are based on copying, of course, but so too is streaming based on the reproduction of digital code. Copying shapes more than our commerce and communication; it shapes culture itself. It has become, to paraphrase Clifford Geertz, part of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The poet Kenneth Goldsmith has made a career of copying—not only other people’s poems but also newspapers and traffic reports and Hilary Clinton’s emails. 1“Influencers” on YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms are amassing fame and fortune by encouraging otherpeople to copy.
It was not ever thus. In most forms, copying today occurs without people even taking notice, but it used to be painstaking, imperfect work, with greater or lesser amounts of respectability. The copying done by religious scribes was recognized as a spiritual practice. That of forgers and “pirates” was often scorned and condemned. And the accuracy in copies that we take for granted was once rare. “Books in seventeenth-century stalls,” quipped historian Hillel Schwartz, “had typographical errors on neatly every page, double double lines, [and] mixσed-up signatures.” 2Rather, the proliferation of copies and copying on which so much of contemporary society is based has a history. It has developed unevenly over time in various forms, driven by circumstances [End Page 152]in distinct historical contexts, taking on a range of different meanings. Copying has refracted political, economic, and technological change and affected how people experience the relationship between uniqueness and repetition. Processes and cultures of mechanical and digital reproduction have altered how people perceive and understand reality itself. 3
When it comes to words, ideas, and facts, the conventions of copying have been especially complicated, shaped by the interactions of law, custom, politics, and technology. Over time, these conventions have repeatedly broken down or been challenged, and these changes have exposed the complex social underpinnings of ideas of originality and imitation and given rise to persistent questions about the rights of creators and the utility of sharing. The two books under review here highlight such questions, and taken together, they shed valuable light on who gets to copy, under what conditions, and to what effect. Nominally, both are studies of the history of copyright, but both—in different ways—also explore something broader: the political economy of copying. That is, both are attuned to the stakes in conflicts over copyright for society at large and concerned not only with the legal history of copying but also the social and political debates in which the law has been enmeshed.
The best writing on the history of copyright brings out not just the nuances of the law but also its real-world implications. It shows how recondite legal issues can be matters of practical urgency with material consequences for what and how we communicate. And it makes legible the relationship between the law and other social institutions. This is the achievement of Paul Goldstein’s Copyright’s Highway, which was recently published in its second edition, twenty-five years after the first. (A revised edition was also published in 2003. 4) In lucid prose, Goldstein offers a brief yet potent overview of copyright history and...