Where do we get the idea of the original and copy? More than a decade ago when I started wrestling with the legal regulation of digital media aka the world as we now experience it I realised that in the digital world there is no original. Instead there are copies that co-constitute each other.
I type this blog post, as I do so my computer re-arranges some electrons in its Random Access Memory. This RAM is dependant on a power supply – if the power supply is disrupted before I save the post then the configuration of the electrons will not be accessible to me. (Note to self; save the post right now). Is that the original?
I, the supposed author of the post do not have direct access to that ephemeral record, instead it is accessible only through the mediation of a computer using a particular set of programs and protocols. I interact with via a scree, this draft is displayed on a screen as I type. Is that the original? It exists only because of the arrangement of electrons in the RAM which is the basis for the display on the screen. When I make changes I perceive them on my screen but those changes are made through altering the version in temporary memory. Perhaps they co-constitute each other. Together they make up the original blog post, except that they don’t, they are not yet a blog post because they exist only on my computer. They must be available on my blog site to other users of the World Wide Web. To accomplish that I must send a version to the server that hosts my blog.
Publishing the blog post requires my computer to send signals to the blog server so that it can make a ‘copy’ of whatever it is that is in my computer right now.The blog server then uses that version to send instructions to your computer to tell your computer what to display as you can read this. So perhaps although it is a copy from my computer what is on my blog server is the original.
By now, if you haven’t given up reading you wonder what the point is. Who cares which is the original? Perhaps there are no originals in the digital world, only co-constituting copies.Why it matters is because this language of original and copy is deeply embedded in all kinds of places, in law, in literary theory and in some epistemologies. It is not only copyright law that relies on ideas of originals and copies, so does the law of evidence which requires the production of an original document rather than a copy.
If the distinction of idea and copy is no longer stable you may ask what destabilization reveals; what purposes does the distinction serve? What does it valorize and what does it occlude? What politics of the copy become visible?
A rare opportunity to talk about the politics of the copy is a workshop at the University of the Western Cape on 28 November 2015. It is organised by Paige Sweet and Kate Highman of UWC who have called for presentations. Adam Haupt (remember Stealing Empire?) will be giving the plenary.