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In Defense of Copying

Sometimes imitation is the best form of learning and improving ideas.

Jane Griffin

We live in a society obsessed with copying. From file sharing to Internet memes to playlists of songs created for loved ones, we copy things every day. The pervasiveness of copying in our society has led to strict laws that distinguish acceptable acts of copying and sharing from non-acceptable acts. Laws that police piracy and protect copyright and intellectual property have become so powerful and pervasive that they discipline even our most quotidian behaviors. All we need do is look at the ongoing and heated debates over Facebook’s privacy settings to realize how hyper-vigilant we all are about what’s mine and what’s yours and who can share what with whom.

For all the legitimate problems that copying and piracy produce, I believe our obsession with policing them has caused us to forget the creative benefits that copying and sharing provide to individuals, society, and even business.

I think quite a lot about piracy and the act of copying in my job as a Spanish professor. My students’ success in learning Spanish is a result of their ability to copy how people who already know the language use it: how words are selected, how intonation changes their meaning, how pronunciation makes communication possible, and so on.

Of course, language belongs to everyone. We don’t have to worry about copying language because it is not the private property of a particular individual, organization, or corporation.

This is where things like literature really complicate the issue. Literature is considered private property because it supposedly comes from the individual genius of one person. But to be meaningful, literature is composed from material that belongs to us all: language, ideas, myths, histories, traditions, and values. Shared material is foundational to society, and thus to literature.

Example I: in fall 2012 my students and I read a medieval story from El Conde Lucanor, written by Don Juan Manuel in 1335. The old folk tale is uncannily similar to Shakespeare’s famous play, The Taming of the Shrew, written nearly 255 years later. In fact, Shakespearian scholars agree that the English master based his play on a number of earlier literary works, including the text by Juan Manuel. 

In class we watched a video production of The Taming of the Shrew, along with clips from contemporary Hollywood recreations of Shakespeare’s play that are targeted specifically to young adults, including the 1999 film Ten Things I Hate About You. While none of my students had ever read or seen The Taming of the Shrew, let alone heard of the story by Juan Manuel, almost all of them had seen Ten Things I Hate About You. These copies helped turn a remote text into something familiar and accessible to them.  

But does this count as piracy or copyright infringement? Did Shakespeare plagiarize Juan Manuel or was he simply inspired by him? Many scholars who study piracy and copyright laws frequently cite this kind of example as evidence that copying is an inherent part of the creative process, and that current laws against copying pose a serious threat to the richness of art and culture. Imagine how different Shakespeare’s artistic career would have been if writers like Juan Manuel had copyrighted their works — or how different our own popular culture would be if Shakespeare had copyrighted his.

Under today’s laws, though, Shakespeare might be guilty of copyright infringement. Researchers studying cinema, for instance, commonly cite cases in which the mere repetition of a particular idea for a film is enough to sue someone wishing to make a film about the same idea. 

The argument that piracy and copyright laws stifle creativity has also infiltrated the world of business. From a business perspective, piracy is most often seen as a threat to success and therefore as something that should rightfully be penalized. Yet the legal wars currently playing out within the technology industry (notably the suits and counter-suits between Apple and Samsung over phone designs) show how overuse of copyright and intellectual property protection can harm scientific and engineering innovation. Industry leaders have the resources to file an endless string of lawsuits (and they do) to scare smaller firms right off the playing field.  In the technology industry, as well as in the media and entertainment industries, copyright and intellectual property laws often do more to create corporate monopolies than they do to ensure innovation, creativity, and the diversity of ideas and products.

As much as I think our current views on copying deserve to be critiqued, I myself am on the frontlines of policing illegal acts of copying. The technology available to university students today makes plagiarizing easier than ever. Business has responded with software such as Turnitin, which scans student work for plagiarism. I use Turnitin, but I worry that it produces a relationship of distrust between teacher and student. I offset such outcomes with assignments that encourage ethical and creative uses of copying.

Example II: this semester my students and I read a lot of poetry. They cringed when I asked them to write a poem in Spanish, but were relieved when I asked them to copy the structure of a poem we had read together in class. This framework, based on an act of copying, eased their insecurities and freed them to do something they thought impossible: write poetry in another language.

We shouldn’t do away with our efforts to mitigate the negative aspects of piracy and copyright infringement, but neither should we allow these efforts to prevent us from sharing, imitating, or at times even copying great ideas.

Jane D. Griffin is assistant professor of Modern Languages at Bentley University.