The image, the imagined, the imaginary – these are all terms that direct us to something critical and new in global cultural processes: the imagination as a social practice. No longer mere fantasy (opium for the masses whose real work is elsewhere), no longer simple escape (from a world defined principally by more concrete purposes and structures), no longer elite pastime (thus not relevant to the lives of ordinary people), and no longer mere contemplation (irrelevant for new forms of desire and subjectivity), the imagination has become an organized field of social practices, a form of work (in the sense of both labor and culturally organized practice), and a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally identified fields of possibility. -Arjun Appadurai, Disjuncture and Difference, Modernity at Large
Before we tackle the specific (specifically legal) questions of copyright, I’d like to jot down some notes on a broader subject: the processes of communal imagination (that we know as Culture) that are fundamental for a discussion of the “public domain”.
In a video linked from James Boyle’s The Public Domain, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales explains that the public domain is “a new kind of folk culture”, another speaker adds that it is “a shared culture.” I believe that, by definition, any culture is shared (and in a way, folkloric). Culture is precisely a set of signs, symbols, values and customs that a group of people have in common. For the Yoruba, all myths, songs, stories and historical accounts (all “cultural artifacts” intrinsic to their culture) are grouped together under the term “itan”; certain classical Arabic poets were so instrumental in defining genres that any later author who wrote in the same mode simply signed with the same name; holy books, though touched by many hands, are often attributed to a single “Spirit”. In the West, we are much more concerned with the “owners” of ideas, the individual authors who created (and copyrighted) the bits and pieces that make up our imagination. Nonetheless, it would seem that Jefferson was very conscious of the relationship between the part and the whole (thoughts and the cultures they inhabit) when he spoke of “an idea, the fugitive fermentation of an individual brain”. A thought, unlike an object, isn’t grounded in the physical world, and has the ability to spread like fire through individual minds until it is appropriated by an entire community. In this way, an idea cannot be owned and controlled like physical property, as soon as it is communicated it is in the public realm, and the limits of the public realm are almost impossible to trace.
I grew up in Colombia, where symbols of fervent religiosity (imported from Spain) and confused nationalism exist side-by-side with endless amounts of stolen (and beautifully perverted) images from US American culture. Bart Simpson taking a piss is a common motif airbrushed on the buses of my city. Obviously nobody pays attention to the illegal use of this copyrighted character, its makers and users are too far away from the real markets, but what will never cease to shock me is how popular it is, how communicable and significant the symbol “Bart Simpson” is to a people who are so distant from those who created it.
Theorists of modernity have often explained this through the rise of film and television (which in so many ways prefigured our use of the internet). Miriam Bratu Hansen (who died this week), claimed that Hollywood cinema was instrumental in the creation of a “modernist vernacular”, a sort of coherent visual language of types that could be communicated across nations and beyond tongues. This isn’t as Utopian as it sounds: it implies the creation of Mickey Mouse but also of the rigid stereotypes used to represent all cultures deemed foreign and exotic by Hollywood. But things have changed since Hollywood’s “Golden Era”, and though entertainment is still controlled by a few corporations (the same ones that desperately need copyright for their survival), more people are capable of speaking (and subverting, and reinventing) the common tongue. My point is that simply speaking the language implies using (stealing?) its parts. The (terrifying) essence of this is made obvious in Pop art: Marylin’s face is a powerful sign for an entire culture, and so it doesn’t belong to Warhol or MGM or even herself. It is simply another particle of a language and languages, strictly speaking, cannot be owned.