In Praise of Copying

by Marcus Boon

11 October 2010


Is Authenticity Relative?

Under “Frequently Asked Questions” on the website, the people at deftly exploited the confusions that underlie Platonic thought:

1. Are these Authentic Louis Vuitton hand bags? No, we do not sell Louis Vuitton registered trademark bags. The real Louis Vuitton bags can only be bought from authorized dealers. Our bags are replicas. They have all of the proper labeling in all the correct places, lining, locks, and keys, are of the high quality you should expect, and look authentic.”

The bags are not authentic; they are replicas. But they look authentic. What is the difference between something “looking authentic” and “being authentic”? Especially if, taking Basicreplica at their word, we can say that everything in the copy is made with the same materials and is of the same “high quality.” If the 1927 Louis Vuitton ad claimed that LV bags not only have essence, but look as though they do—their outer appearance being in accord with their essence—then Basicreplica could claim that although their bags’ outward appearance was identical to those made by Louis Vuitton, they were not liable to charges of copyright or trademark infringement, because they were not claiming that the bags were “Authentic Louis Vuitton hand bags.”

Historically, philosophically, and otherwise, different cultures have had very different ways of understanding and valuing the phenomena that today are associated with intellectual property.

Intellectual-property law functions through Platonic concepts. IP law’s three constituent parts—copyright, trademark, and patent law—are each built around the paradox that you cannot protect an idea itself, but can protect only a fixed, material expression of an idea. One claims an idea as property by materially fixing it through describing a process for realizing it (patent law), by inscribing or figuring it materially in the form of a picture, text, notated music, film sequence (copyright law), or by developing some method of inscription that one uses to mark otherwise generic objects as one’s own (trademark law). What is the ontology of intellectual property? Ideas cannot be owned, because they are intangible, but the original expression of an idea can be owned when it is tangible, material, fixed. While the idea itself exists in a realm beyond the human realm, the expression belongs to this world, and to the person who, receiving the idea as author, inventor, or owner, fixes it materially as self-expression through his or her labor and turns it into property. This is called “originality.” Others who fix it materially via access to the this-worldly original expression, rather than receiving the idea, are said to be making a copy. The law protects the rights of the former, but not the latter—unless the expression is a fact, a generic term, etc., in which case it belongs in the public domain.

In the age of globalized capital, the commodity itself has adapted to the structures of Platonic legal ontology. Manufacturers work to produce products with distinctive outward appearances that fix, mark, the originality with which they claim to express an idea. Thus, the distinct shape of Louis Vuitton’s Monogram bag can be copyrighted, the name “Monogram” and the inscription “LV” on a bag can be trademarked, and certain innovations in the otherwise generic product called a “bag” can be patented. And those who wish to make similar products must situate their productions within certain legal spaces: that of the art object, protected by fair-use doctrine (though Vuitton has attempted to prevent artists from making LV bags for this purpose without the company’s permission, at the same time legitimizing the productions of others such as Murakami or Stephen Sprouse, with whom the company is collaborating); the parody (for example the “Chewy Vuiton” squeaky toys made by pet toy manufacturer Haute Diggity Dog, which Vuitton unsuccessfully attempted to sue); the generic item called a “bag” which receives no IP protection; or the more spurious, yet also more philosophical arguments offered by At all costs, one should avoid being associated with copies or copying, or face being banned from the republic! It all comes down to what “is,” or rather what is legally granted the status of being. Yet paradoxically, since ideas do not or cannot receive legal protection, IP law encourages those who produce commodities to exaggerate the inevitable distortion of the idea as manifest in the actual object. And the result of this is the kitsch version of originality, “thinking outside the box,” that prevails in the marketplace today.

Alternatives to Platonic Mimesis
All of this assumes that the Platonic model is true. It is unclear how seriously the producers of the website—or the advertising agency that produced the 1927 Louis Vuitton ad—take their astute deployments of Platonic concepts. Platonism, as new media theorist McKenzie Wark recently pointed out, is a game, complete with screens, darkened rooms, and headsets. Through the immense historical networks which have resulted in globalization, the game has been installed (to use the word explored by theorist Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in describing the advent of particular mimetic regimes) almost everywhere today, and in a limited sense this game is functional. But beyond this limited sense, with its official protocols of exchange, law, ownership, and identity, what accounts for the multiplication of Louis Vuitton bags?

The history of the Western philosophical tradition, beginning with Aristotle, consists in good part of a series of responses to—modifications, negations, and reversals of—Platonic mimesis.  An in-depth review of this tradition is beyond the scope of this book and I refer the reader to the excellent accounts that are available. Christianity takes up Platonic ideas in a variety of ways, from Augustine’s positing of the world as a “region of dissimilarity” separated from God, to Aquinas’ Imitation of Christ, in which mimesis has a positive valence as a way of participating in the divine. Although, after the Renaissance, mimesis thus named is increasingly downplayed in Western philosophy, the underlying problematic of mimesis remains.

As for contemporary critical theory, we can summarize the situation as follows. Elaborating on Nietzsche’s “reverse Platonism,” Gilles Deleuze observed that the Platonic Idea is always accompanied by a swarm of simulacra, fakes, and copies that threaten it, distort it, etc.; and he affirms the equal ontological rights of these simulacra. Jacques Derrida, continuing Heidegger’s critique of Western metaphysics, tracked down residual traces of Platonic idealism in Husserl and others, proposing the freeplay of the trace as an alternative way of understanding phenomena. Michel Foucault, in “What Is an Author?” argued that authorship and the language of original and copy that accompanies it are variously constructed by particular legal-social-political regimes. Thus, we find ourselves in the now-familiar condition of postmodernity, set out most famously by Baudrillard in Simulations: a world of “copies without originals.”

From the perspective of this tradition, we see an infinite proliferation of Louis Vuitton bags, regulated by something like Foucault’s “author function,” and the historical-social-political institution of a system of property rights management that assigns ownership and authorship to an entity known as Louis Vuitton. But while this is a valid description of the situation as far as it goes, it does not explain how something like a Louis Vuitton bag comes to appear as such at all. While it affirms the power of the fake to challenge the original, through a reversal of Platonism, it does not explain how this happens—or why it fails, insofar as it does. While “Platonic mimesis” is disavowed, it insidiously reasserts itself in the absence of persuasive alternatives.

We find ourselves in a certain impasse—legally, philosophically, theoretically. But the various philosophical and theoretical responses to Plato hardly exhaust the possible framings of mimetic phenomena. And given the situation of the vast swirl of objects known as “Louis Vuitton bags” circulating around the planet today, it would be impossible to claim that this situation is solely the result of a particular history, or a competing set of counter histories, within Western philosophy. This is confirmed by a number of recent comparative studies revealing that historically, philosophically, and otherwise, different cultures have had very different ways of understanding and valuing the phenomena that today are associated with intellectual property.

Marcus Boon is Associate Professor of English, York University, Toronto, and the author of The Road of Excess (Harvard). More information can be found at He blogs about contemporary cultures of copy at In Praise of  

© Marcus Boon

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