On Marcus Boon’s In Praise Of Copying

Marcus Boon’s recent book, In Praise Of Copying (Harvard University Press, 2010), is a timely argument in favor of our freedom to freely copy one another in the name of healthy creativity.  Boon, a professor of literature at York University (as well as a DJ and contributor to Wire magazine) notes that the word copy derives from the Latin “copia” which means “abundance, plenty, multitude” (41).  Copying is everywhere, and Boon eloquently argues that not only is copying an integral part of being human, but that “we could not be human without copying, and that we can and should celebrate this aspect of ourselves, in full awareness of our situation” (7).

Part of what makes this book so authoritative on our situation is its own sheer copiousness and wide-ranging mobilization of ideas from philosophy, religion, critical cultural studies, anthropology, and music.  Anchoring the book’s argument are some ideas from Buddhist philosophy, through which Boon makes deep and abstract observations about copying, beginning with the fact that nothing is ever truly original and that everything comes from something, thus everything in the world is a copy.  We ourselves are copies too: namely, DNA copies (thankfully mutated ones!) of our parents (and their parents…).  For the world as we know it, it’s copies all the way down.

One of Boon’s main case studies is that of the Luis Vuitton handbag–the original LV which costs thousands of dollars and the many knock-off LV copies which look and feel practically identical but cost much less.  One interesting point here is how originals need copies in order to assert their originality; there’s a subtle dialogue between the two that Boon argues is essential to the original’s thriving.  So in the case of the LV bags, the knock offs are actually what give the original its imagined and real (i.e. dollars and cents) value.  The idea Boon is getting across is that the essence of things is never fixed, for if it were, “it could not be transported to the copy, and imitation, even as a degradation of the original, would not be possible” (27).

Musical practice is another useful locus for examining copying.  The reason for this is due to both its evanescence and its resistance to being controlled and regulated as a thing.  Music, notes Boon in one particularly luminescent passage, “appears and disappears fleetingly […] constellates into infinite sonic chains, precipitates collective joy, is eminently portable, and resists being turned into a thing or property–which is why folk cultures have such love for it” (65).  Boon cites folk music and hip hop as traditions that each thrive on copy-based practices.  Folk music cultures “are always cultures to whom nothing belongs, from whom everything is taken” (72), using and  transforming whatever is at hand as the basis for a shared repertoire.  (Think of all those simple chord progressions upon which countless songs are spun!)  Hip hop too is a music culture built on copying, a response “to the industrial world” (69) through the reappropriation of technologies of sound playback (think about the turntable) for copying purposes.  In both traditions, copying is at play “in the repetition of generic motifs and devices such as particular songs, rhythms, patterns, and practices…” (194).

Of course, musicians and composers–whether they work in folk/popular or classical music idioms–have always copied one another, but the issue of copying went into overdrive with the advent of the dub remix in the 1970s, then with the (disco) DJ spinning two copies of the same record to extend rhythmic breaks, and finally with the arrival of the digital sampler and the personal computer.  Now anybody can copy just about anything and make “endless copies of a tune” (67).  Indeed, we are truly in what Kevin Kelly calls a “recombinant moment.”

Overall, In Praise Of Copying offers an abundance of material to process and think through.  Boon’s book also helps the reader make sense of our recent digital music revolution.  Remember back in the early 2000s when Napster was so popular, when peer-to-peer file sharing of MP3 files seemed to be the future of music, and then how the recording industry shut it all down? (Napster is now a for pay subscription service.).  Napster was loathed because it eroded the idea of a music recording as a charged object of desire with value due to its manufactured scarcity.  Napster was also loathed because it effectively made any music that was in MP3 format a fluid, copyable thing again.  And Napster was inherently pro-copia and consumers loved it–free music!–while the recording industry hated it.  In Napster’s wake, of course, came Apple’s iTunes, digital rights management (which prevents you from making endless copies of all those songs you bought for 99 cents apiece), and a return to what Karl Marx would call “commodity fetishism” (183).

And here we come to the crux of the matter: music was never meant to be an object, but rather a shared, impermanent experience.  But with industrialization, capitalism, recordings (copied sound objects), and copyright law came the notion of music as property and the possibility of manufactured scarcity (and our fetishizing of commodities).  Copia, our abundance and shared heritage of creative work, has been, in our era, hijacked by commercial interests.  And yet . . .We remix, we mash-up, we digitally cut and paste and juxtapose, we auto-tune speech into melodies…Copia is, in these ways at least, alive and well.

Boon offers you a copy of his book to read here.

And for more reading on copying, see Jonathan Lethem’s excellent article “The Ecstasy of Influence” here.

Sounds Want To Be Free: Freesound

Freesound (www.freesound.org) is a collaborative database of Creative Commons Sampling Plus-licensed sounds.  At freesound, anyone can upload or download sounds.  What kinds of sounds are here?  You name it: environmental sound field recordings (wind, rain, ice cracking), industrial and mechanical sounds, human voices, sound effects, digitally processed sounds, drones . . . All of the sounds on the website can be copied, sampled and transformed, and even used in new works, as long as authors of the original sounds are credited in the derivative work.  Users can even upload sounds into “sample packs” or collections of related sounds.  Thus, you can find a collection that features the sounds of someone walking over ice and use this sample pack as the basis for a new kind of drum kit.  The range of sonic material here is staggering: browsing freesound is a little like getting a glimpse of the human DNA code.  To continue the genetic analogy, if you are an electronic musician interested in tweaking sounds, this is a great place to find sounds (besides recording your own of course).

I have two thoughts on freesound.  First, it reminds me of something John Perry Barlow talked about his 1993 Wired article “The Economy Of Ideas.” One of Barlow’s main points is that information “wants to be free”–free, that is, of the “containers” in which it has been packaged for so long. Barlow could have been talking about sound too, as what has happened to music over the past 15 years nicely illustrates his point.  During this time, it has become very easy to free sounds–remixing them, mashing them up, re-sampling and transforming them.  In this regard, f seems to me to be just an inevitable kind of collective freeing sound project.  Interestingly, there are no songs on the freesound website.  But this doesn’t mean that there still aren’t sounds that perhaps shouldn’t be there.  For instance, type in “overtone singing” and you’ll find 60 sound samples, including Tibetan chanting, Tuvan khoomei, and all kinds of processed variants of these.  After a few seconds of hearing the first sample (chant from Tibet), the ethnomusicologist wants to know: Where was this recorded?  Who is chanting?  And was the recordist given permission to record?  After a little digging around, we learn that a freesound member named djgriffin is not only the recordist, but also the singer on many, but not all, of his samples.  There are field recordings buried in there as well.  One of djgriffin’s samples features gelug nuns chanting at a 2010 world peace festival in India.  This recording is now part of djgriffin’s “tibetan buddhism” sample pack that contains fifteen sounds.

The second point to note about freesound is how freely its sounds have travelled to other sound outlets.  Case in point: I was recently enjoying listening to an iPhone app called Ambiance.  Made by the company Urban Apps., Ambience is described as a sonic “environment enhancer” that lets users download from a collection of 1000 free sounds and mix them together to make custom soundscapes for listening.  (I have put together quite a nice mix of low-pitched wind chimes and ocean waves . . . )  Interestingly, all of the sounds that I have so far auditioned are attributed to the freesound website.  This is yet another example of what the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer calls schizophonia, or the splitting of a sound from its origin through electroacoustic reproduction.