The week the music industry brought suit against 261 users of Internet file-sharing services, Donald L. McCabe was in St. Louis to talk about a different form of digital copying. Mr. McCabe, a Rutgers University professor, has made a career of studying the cheating of American high school and college students. His most recent study found that cheating was spreading almost like file-sharing. Of more than 18,000 students surveyed, 38 percent said they had lifted material from the Internet for use in papers in the last year.
More striking to Mr. McCabe, 44 percent said they considered this sampling no big deal. Because the Internet makes it easy to copy information, he said, “it’s made it much more tempting.”
“I’m not sure it’s shifted values yet,” he continued. “But for a lot of students, it’s heading in that direction.”
In fact, for many people, that shift has already come. Like file-sharing – which 60 million Americans have tried – cutting and pasting from the Internet is just one part of a broader shift toward all copying, all the time.
Consider a night out in the wireless city: Throw on a faux-vintage sports jersey, grab a bootleg Prada bag and head to the Cineplex for the sequel to a movie based on a television show. Afterward, log on to KaZaA and download the movie’s title song, based on a digital sample. While you’re online, visit a blog with links to published movie gossip and use your pirated e-mail program to send tidbits to your hundred closest friends. Curl up with a best seller by Stephen E. Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin, who last year admitted to slipping materials from other texts into their books.
Most of these activities would have been difficult or impossible a generation ago. They differ widely in their legal and ethical implications. (For example, you can’t prosecute someone just for producing “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.”) But together they suggest a broad relationship between new technology and a value system that seems shaped to it. In a nation that flaunts its capacities to produce and consume, much of the culture’s heat now lies with the ability to cut, paste, clip, sample, quote, recycle, customize and recirculate. It is tempting to ascribe the Culture of the Copy to college students, but its values run deeper. The United States economy shed 44,000 manufacturing jobs last month, continuing a long-running trend away from production. Since the 1980’s, when liberalized trade laws made it easier to “outsource” manufacturing to subcontractors in the developing world, companies like Nike or Tommy Hilfiger have competed in what Naomi Klein, in her 2000 book “No Logo,” described as “a race toward weightlessness,” in which production is a hindrance, not an asset. In the brand market, value lies not in making things but in copying one’s logo onto as many of them as possible.
D.J.’s, file sharers, handbag cloners, student plagiarists and some bloggers simply do what brand companies do: they reproduce work made elsewhere at lower rates, adding their own signature and mix. The legal ramifications may be different, but the action is the same.
“The quintessential American company was Enron, which made nothing,” said Neal Gabler, author of “Life the Movie.” In today’s culture, he added, “the product is almost immaterial; it’s the consciousness about it.”
“What the Internet does is, it pries everything out of moral context and lets people feel knowing about it,” he said, because the skills used to cut and paste something with a computer are more valued than those used to manufacture it.
“In a sense, Internet technology is a metaphor for the new morality. As long as you can get it, it doesn’t matter how.”
On a recent morning on Canal Street, crowds of shoppers, most past their undergraduate years, brought the metaphor to life, plucking up fake Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Kate Spade handbags. A New Jersey woman named Linda Dorian, plumping for two bootleg Vuittons, compared her purchases to downloading music. “Somehow everybody seems to be making out,” she said. “I don’t see any poor rock stars. I don’t see any poor designers.”
Besides, she added, buying the fake is cooler, just as Grokster, a file-sharing program, has a cachet the Wal-Mart CD counter cannot match. “Shopping for copies is getting to be a trend,” she said.
As technology has produced a new ecology of copying, it has pushed into uncharted territories of ethics and the law, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of “Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity” and director of communication studies at New York University. He said he has had 10 percent of his students turn in whole papers copied from the Internet, not realizing that he could Google them into big trouble. “We’re coming up on 10 years of widespread use of the Internet,” he said. “We should have better discussions of a code of ethics for dealing with these materials. The rule of law will always incompletely and perhaps negatively affect the Internet.”
Nearly 70 years ago, the critic Walter Benjamin addressed the aesthetic limitations of the copy in a famous essay about photography and authenticity, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin argued that even a perfect copy lacked the contextual meaning of the real thing. Since then, postmodern critics have developed dense theories of simulacra, bricolage and pastiche that could daze a tuna at 20 paces.
Now the bricoleurs are living next door, and they look nothing like the monographs said they would. “Somehow I don’t think it comes from avant-garde theory,” said Louis Menand, author of “The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.” The KaZaA community can burn “All About the Benjamins,” the song or the movie, without the endorsement of Walter.
“They wouldn’t say it’s all a simulacrum anyway,” Mr. Menand said. “If they could say that they wouldn’t need to copy their papers online.”
In the current universe of the copy, the looseness of context is everything. Most users of music file-sharing services do not copy the products for sale by the music industry. While the industry sells albums, artificially shaped to the capacities of their commercial format, LP or CD, file-sharers tend to rip songs.
As their favorite musicians recombine digital samples to create new music, downloaders recombine digital songs in new contexts.
“I don’t think they think of it as copying music,” said Joe Levy, deputy managing editor of Rolling Stone. “It’s a very individual experience for them. They want the songs they want in the order they want. Then it becomes not the new Mary J. Blige album, but their own mix. It’s a much more individual package of music. Kids view it as an interactive and creative act.”
Betsy Frank, the executive vice president for research and planning at MTV Networks, who studies young TV and music audiences, said the people in her focus groups tended to describe copying as an assertive act, a way of navigating a media environment that bombards them with information – some good, some bad, most of it a little of both. “They can rationalize downloading music or term papers extremely effectively as using their skills to select what works for them,” she said.
The law, of course, will inevitably catch up. When rap acts started sampling James Brown records in the 1980’s, complaints raged that they were violating copyrights and the principles of art. In a Bronx home studio in 1987, the producer Jazzy Jay described the law of the copy: “The laws on taking samples are, You take ’em until you get caught.”
Two decades later, musicians usually pay for their samples, and the aesthetic argument – that sampling was theft, not music – has quieted. Now sample fees are part of the business model, and no one seems to worry about whether it is art.
At both stages, value judgments about copying followed technology and money, not the other way around.
In the culture of copying, technological considerations have trumped ethical ones: if you upload it, they will download.
LAST week’s lawsuits against file-sharers are an attempt to get the public to treat copying not as a question of technological possibility or moral implications, but as a threat to the wallet. A study by Forrester Research found that 68 percent of burners said they would stop if they thought they might get in serious trouble. As in sampling, the moral questions should follow the financial ones, said Josh Bernoff, the principal analyst covering media and entertainment at Forrester.
But the process still had some hurdles to get over, Mr. Bernoff admitted. Recently he was discussing his research with an executive at a media organization that has been very aggressive about trying to discourage file-sharing. When Mr. Bernoff asked the executive how he had gotten the report, which Forrester sells for $895, the man hesitated.
“They got a copy from one of the studios,” Mr. Bernoff said. “Here is an organization that’s saying that stealing hurts the little people, and they took our intellectual property and they shuttled it around like a text file.”
The aesthetic fallout of all this copying will be harder to sort. In a culture that assigns diminishing value to production, can copying really fill the void? The hypothetical night out involves many aesthetic decisions but little that can be called art.
Mr. Menand noted that his students who downloaded papers from the Internet often picked mediocre work, perhaps thinking it would be less noticeable. The availability of obscure, non-Britney music on KaZaA – one of the justifications cited by users – has done nothing to stop Hilary Duff, the overpackaged star of the “Lizzie McGuire” movie and series, from having the No. 1 album in the country this week. If this is the democracy of the copy, it is enough to make one long for the elitism of creative genius.
Ms. Frank, the MTV executive, noted the limitations of unlimited customization, even amid unlimited access. For young Americans, she said, “because of the way they’ve trained themselves to use media, they never have to be exposed to an idea, an artist, or anything that they did not select for themselves.”