Piracy and plagiarism

by craigepplin

My Twitter feed sent me to a description of the London-based Piracy Project today. Coordinated by AND publishing, the project explores the legal and aesthetic implications of book piracy. This last coupling of terms is an odd one. We are used to talking about music piracy and we know what plagiarism is, but book piracy rings hollow. Rhizome spells out why:

In a way, we have all pirated books. We read PDFs that a university professor scanned from his or her private copy of a book, including their comments in the margins. We try to interpose open pages on Amazon and those on Google Books in order to get the information we are looking for. Somehow, it seems more acceptable; when a professor scans a few chapters from a private copy it is deemed “fair use,” and thus not a copyright infringement, because it is done for educational reasons. But the habit of reading scans is imprinted in us. This is one of the ways in which we use books–and books should be used.

There’s no good reason why books should be used this way and songs or movies shouldn’t. Perhaps the difference lies in the fact that when we illegally download a song we then own a copy, virtually indistinguishable from the original, of that song. With a PDF scan, the most we can do is print it out. Few of us would bother to bind a couple chapters of a scanned book, or even the whole thing, and if we did it would still lack the luster of the original. Books, and e-readers will certainly change this, have up to now been considered unique objects. We can borrow them from libraries or friends, and we can photocopy them, but we can’t usually reproduce the feel of the original. This is a description of the situation, but between the word is and the word should lies a quite a distance.

This is why the Piracy Project matters. It opens the door to a reconception of the way we interact with books on a material level. Its artists play at at publishing alternate versions of a book. One example is the set of “excerpts” from Pierre Menard’s version of Don Quixote. Borges had the made-up nineteenth-century French writer rewrite Cervantes’s novel, faithfully reproducing his prose. This copy is a set of excerpts from Menard’s version, which is the same but different from the original. Other artists created objects that left intact the traces of their own or others’ passage through a book. And thus this volume is a version of Camus’s The Stranger, entirely composed of  the fragments that had been underlined by a previous reader. As the description says, “the selections suggest that this reader was a non-native English speaker, hence, an outsider.” A final, more daring strategy is to mimic the author of the book, as in this catalogue raisonné of Gordon Matta-Clark’s work, cut up and sculpted so as to reproduce his own actions as a chainsaw-armed “sculpter” of houses. In short, the project asks us to reconsider the material bases of reading and how these become manifest in the objects that we read.

Piracy is thus seen as a methodology of reading. Versions of it have long been strategies for writing as well. This was the case with Bolivia Construcciones, a novel published a few years ago in Argentina. Its author is Sergio Di Nucci, who writes under the pseudonym Bruno Morales. The front cover of my edition, the third to appear in as many months, announces that it was the winner of the Premio de la Novela La Nación-Sudamericana for the years 2006-2007. This was announced in November 2006, and yet by February 2007 the prize had been revoked. The prize committee explained their decision in the following terms:

A reader [. . .] pointed out “strange similarities,” at first not noted by the committee, between the novel Bolivia Construcciones [. . .] and Nada (1944), by the Catalan author Carmen Laforet. Far from being so strange, the similarities appear at various moments in the novel. [. . .] In the case of Bolivia Construcciones, the fragments of Nada, included with minimal changes, do not amount to a rewriting. The novel advances, its situations proceed because Carmen Laforet provides them. The ethics of a writer, his intellectual honesty, consists in attributing to whom it corresponds what is not the fruit of his own work.

The committee affirms that Di Nucci’s text is not an original approach to Nada, but rather a hijacking, an illegitimate appropriation of the product of another author’s work: in a word, plagiarism, the textual version of piracy.

As one might expect, the committee’s decision provoked a series of polemics among academics, writers, journalists, and artists in Argentina and beyond. At the center of the debates was a question of legitimacy. Daniel Link wrote on his blog in March 2007 that the import of the debate lay in determining “in what literary system (if one in fact exists) Bolivia Construcciones would be not only possible but also legitimate.” Several weeks earlier, he had commented on an example from another “literary system” in which similar operations were not only legitimate but exemplary.

What was once called “Petrarchism” was nothing but the systematic, deliberate application of a model. The best Petrarchan poem was the one that most closely resembled the model. Garcilaso, Góngora, the best Spanish-language poets of the Golden Age, gave us memorable verses that were nothing but… translations of verses that Petrarch had previously crafted.

I don’t mean to say that this is the case we’re analyzing now, only that it demonstrates, simply, that conceptions of literature vary according to the era, the decade and the year, and it is well and good and stimulating that it be such. (“Al César”)

Thus couched, the controversy that surrounded Di Nucci’s novel depends on the “literary system” in which the novel is immersed. In the opinion of the prize committee, the unacknowledged, extensive citations of Carmen Laforet’s novel amounted to plagiarism—conceived here as anathema to the requirements of a literary culture based on intellectual property and individual genius. On the other hand, the author himself justified his gesture by way of comparison with other artistic media, citing both the use of samples by musicians and the appropriation of iconic images by Andy Warhol. In short, Di Nucci appeals to modes of creation practiced in other contexts, other artistic “systems,” to return to the term used by Link.

Those systems, it almost goes without saying, are mutable, not absolute. Di Nucci practices a sort of active plagiarism, harking back not only to Petrarch but also to the short story mentioned above, Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote.” And in the Piracy Project, this sort of plagiarism is transposed to the work of book production itself. In other words, both projects ask the same question: what can we legitimately do–legally as well as aesthetically–with a book?