Transcript for Marcus Boon on "In Praise of Copying"

Jim Fleming: What exactly does it mean to copy? And why do copies so often lead to smearing and ridicule? Marcus Boon's a good person to answer these kinds of questions. He's an English professor at York University in Toronto and the author of a book called, "In Praise of Copying."  Boon talks with Anne Strainchamps.

Anne Strainchamps: Shopping malls, Starbucks, airports. We live in a world of stores and restaurants and cafes that are all copies of each other. I suppose you could say that the McDonald's hamburger you buy is a copy of a hamburger.

Marcus Boon: Well, okay, but let's push it a little further. Let's say, then you go back to your house. You go to your townhouse, maybe your suburban semi-detached house, and usually, if they were built in the last century, those buildings also tend to be produced en masse as copies of each other. And, it's actually a very carefully constructed environment that, you know, feels as real as anything, and yet is nonetheless a copy. And I think you could go through nearly every aspect of our lives, you know, which we experience as real and in some sense, unique and original, and you could show that at almost every point we were, in actual fact, interacting with copies. And that's what I do in my book, then, is I really do push it as far as I can, and even the conversation we're having right now. At every level, the words we're using were learned. They're copies of words. We feel like when we're speaking them, we're speaking them for the first time, but they only mean something because other people have used them, and because there's a culture of copying, of imitation, that allows us to share a vocabulary, a grammar. And language itself functions through copying.

Strainchamps: Does Buddhist philosophy reflect kind of a different perspective on copying or on imitation?

Boon: Yeah, it does. I don't think it's necessarily a unique perspective, but one thing that's very striking when you have a Buddhist practice is that, mostly what you're doing is copying or imitating. You know, whether you're sitting and meditating on a cushion, whether you're saying a prayer, you're involved in very intense practices of copying. And what's interesting there is that it's believed that by imitation, by copying, you can overcome your bad habits, your suffering, and move towards a state called "enlightenment." And that copying is a transformative practice in that sense.

Strainchamps: And couldn't you say that, ironically, copying meditative practice is supposed to get you to the place where you experience this moment, this original moment?

Boon: Mm-hmm, yeah, exactly. I mean, sometimes I think in the Zen tradition they call it "original mind," even. And that that's a state kind of free of concepts, in a way, and that concepts already are involved in copying. And that that's the kind of paradox that Buddhism works with, that you have to be aware of the degree that you're immersed in structures and practices of copying in order to have some kind of freedom from those very things.

Strainchamps: That's lovely. Of course, sometimes copying is an act of deception. I mean, there's a reason that counterfeiting and forgery are illegal, and I mean, I imagine as a professor you don't let your student plagiarize. Or do you?

Boon: Yeah, it's true. I mean, my thoughts on plagiarism are somewhat complicated just because, when I do encounter a plagiarism case and I have to deal with it, which I do, one of things I usually tell the students is, "Look, if you had done what you did," and usually what students do is they'll go on the internet, and instead of writing something out in their own words, they'll cut and paste several quotations from several internet sources and then kind of rework it a little bit, and then hand it in. And usually they do a bad job of it and you can see that it's not really their language. And what I say to students is, "Look, if you had only just put your cuts and pastes in quotations, and then tried to use a few words of your own in establishing the link between these quotations, which is basically what you were tryign to do anyway, this wouldn't be plagiarism. We would just call this 'citation,' and that's something we're encouraging."

Strainchamps: So you're saying they just didn't copy well enough.

Boon: Exactly. Strainchamps: Haha.

Boon: And, they didn't copy in a, I guess you would say, an honorable way, where they actually owned up to the fact that they were copying, and they participated in a practice of copying that's actually acceptable.

Strainchamps: You posed this really fascinating question in your book. "What would, or will, the world look like when everyone can copy everything freely, when there are enough copies for everyone?"

Boon: Mm-hmm.

Strainchamps: So, I want to put the question back to you. What do you think? How would that look, and what would change?

Boon: I don't know. In one way, it's a scenario from a science-fiction movie, but even since I wrote the book things have been changing very rapidly. For example, the introduction of 3D printers, which is incredible, that now, rather than relying on an industrial factory to produce the objects that we need to live, there's actually the possibility of owning a three-dimensional printer that we simply make objects with.

Strainchamps: I was thinking about that. You know, instead of going to the store, we'll just print a copy of whatever the product is that we desire.

Boon: Yeah, and of course, like there are great kind of possibilities that this will open up, and terrible ones, too. I mean, one of the things people talk about with 3D printers is that everyone will be able to manufacture their own weapons or guns, for example. On the other hand, access to medical tools will suddenly increase. So, I think there's incredible opportunities there and probably incredible dangers, but I think without rethinking what our political and economic system is -- and specifically things like "How do we work? Why do we work? What do we do when we work?" -- there are gonna be incredible obstacles to achieving, or working with something that technically we're gonna be capable of as a global society fairly soon.

Strainchamps: What do you mean? What kinds of obstacles?

Boon: Well, for example, if you don't have to pay for anything because you can simply make a copy of it at home, what will the function of industry and business be at that point? And how will issues like intellectual property claims be dealt with at the moment, where one has this kind of incredible control just through one's computer at home.

Strainchamps: Do you think this is precisely the reason that we are so critical of copying? That we live in a culture in which copying has become easier and easier and easier? Maybe, you know, just as a result, we're more obsessed with it and place more value on whatever we consider to be original, not a copy.

Boon: But, if the basic problem of a global society is how we satisfy basic human needs, and the production of copies becomes so cheap that we can satisfy those needs without bankrupting ourselves as a global society, why wouldn't we embrace this and work towards it as the basis of a happier, global society?

Strainchamps: So, you're saying we have this weird schizophrenic attitude in which our whole culture and economy produces more and more copies, and our lives are based on copies, but we judge them all the time.

Boon: Yeah, and we don't really have a political and economic system that supports our technical capabilities as makers of copies. And I think you see that with just downloading culture on the internet. That at this point, a lot of people have access to basically any film or recording or image that they want. And yet, basically we don't have a legal or economic structure that supports that, a question of how people make a living when everyone has totally free access to copies of movies or music. We just don't have answers to those questions. And in some sense, we don't want to answer the questions because we prefer the current situation, and we prefer having to go work, et cetera, et cetera.

Jim Fleming: Marcus Boon is the author of "In Praise of Copying." He spoke with Anne Strainchamps. So, what do you think of copying? And can imitation lead to innovation? You can get in touch with us through Facebook or Twitter, or send us e-mail through our website at

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