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The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law.

The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation, and the Law. By Rosemary J. Coombe. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998. Pp. xi + 462, introduction, notes, bibliography, index)

Rosemary Coombe begins this important study with an extended description of a walk she takes down Toronto's Queen Street. It is a walk during which she encounters a panoply of corporate symbols and other proprietary insignia of global capital, whether in their "pure" forms or subverted by the interventionist practice of bricoleurs. She also sees products that are intended to be read as designating specific cultural identities, both those she treats with ambivalence (generic Canadian-ness, for example) and ones she implicitly lauds as authentic (such as products in a First Nations crafts outlet). The material seen on the walk echoes the major themes of the book, which Coombe neatly summarizes as: "[the] constitutive role of intellectual properties in commercial and popular culture; the forms of cultural power the law affords holders of copyright, trademark, and publicity rights; the significance of celebrity images in alternative imaginations of gender; the commodification of citizenship and the negotiation of national belonging on commercial terrain; the appropriations, reappropriations, and rumors that continually reactivate and reanimate commodity/signs to make them speak to local needs; the colonial categorical cartographies that underlie our legal regimes; and the postcolonial struggles of indigenous peoples to eliminate commodified representations of their alterity" (5).

It will be clear from this that Coombe analyses a wide range of materials in support of her central thesis. I take this to be the fundamental clash between the active engagement with and production of meaning in contemporary culture through the shifting and creative opportunities of intertextuality and the competing use of intellectual property law as a means both of regulating "infringing" use and generating a potentially dominating intellectual paradigm that creates an environment hostile to the transgressive possibilities of quotation and appropriation. In broad terms this involves a rehearsal of one of the central tensions of Anglo-American intellectual property rights--the demand for an incentive-based regime that encourages production by offering authors and owners protection of their proprietary interests in intellectual property--and one that does not unnecessarily curtail freedom of expression for everyone else.

In positioning herself within this debate, Coombe advocates an open and discursive approach to "transformative" or "free creative" use that clearly supports basic principles of intertextuality and meanings altered through appropriation. Moreover, she presents a protectionist intellectual property regime as necessarily defending the interests of property owners to control aspects of knowledge and communication as such, not just the use of images, symbols or signs they claim to own. She sees this as particularly affecting those communities that occupy more marginal positions within society. Coombe situates their uses of sometimes protected material as charting an effective and important form of resistance to a dominant hegemonic order that repeatedly seeks to constrain unauthorized use so as to maintain control not only over symbols but also over modes of generating new intellectual and cultural material. She presents this as anathema to the development of cultural expression and argues that restrictions on the use of trademarks, celebrity identities, character merchandising or other copyrighted material represent an undesirable restraint on the human ability both to generate new meanings for pre-existing texts and create new texts by appropriative use.

The content of the text is very broad and the inclusion of a truly extensive bibliography (47 pages in small point size) serves to reinforce this apprehension. An unexpected result, though, is that absentees seem all the more inexplicable. For example, in a book concerned in no small part with alterity the absence of any mention of Emmanuel Levinas' writing is surprising. Of course, it may be a moot point as to whether his focus on the primacy of "Otherness" may assist strategies of resistance to the hegemonic control of intellectual property, but there is at least an intuitive connection that might have warranted comment. It might have been useful, too, to have raised Roland Barthes' analysis of images in the section dealing with Sikh Mounties and the nationalistic/racist response to their Canadian-ness. Barthes' discussion of the black soldier saluting the "tricouleur" seems to me a useful example of a in photographic imagery in relation to desires of nationalist uniformity that might have generated interesting discussion in this book. Of course, such absentees would not be disguised were it not for the extent of the bibliography, which, when scrutinized closely, risks becoming a rod for the author's back.

Similarly, there are times where discussions seem curtailed (an apprehension militated by the length of the buttonholing footnotes). For example, Coombe notes how indigenous peoples' responses to corporate trademarking of indigenous insignia, celebrity or language is "complex, multifaceted, and far from unanimous" (187) but doesn't afford ambivalent or positive stances the same level of analytical scrutiny as she grants to a generic hostility to such use. While I agree with her conclusions that such use has serious ramifications for indigenous peoples and their self-determination, the text would, nevertheless, have benefited from more in-depth discussion of the contrary view. There is more to this question than a split identification of signs of indigeneity (business use as both offensive and complimentary), as the activity of indigenous entrepreneurs working with and without community backing suggests. Why is it, for example, that indigenous peoples enter into negotiations with business for the licensing of indigenous signifiers? What is gained by such a relationship, what is threatened by it? How does business respond to this shift in demand?

Cultural quotation in art and business operates on a plane where two axes intersect: an authorized-unauthorized use axis and a commercial-creative use axis. In part, such quotation reflects a tension in the fundamental premise of greater intellectual freedom offered by intertextuality. For indigenous peoples this can provide new avenues of their own cultural expression but can just as often be a cunning ruse by which culturally significant material is made available for continued appropriation by non-indigenous people or companies, sometimes justified by flash theoretical arguments that cloak the residual capital and imperial imperatives in operation. The text refuses a position of unfettered access to or absolute prohibition of the use of signifiers (298) but this runs a little hollow when, for example, the indigenous case for free use of indigenous material is not fully made out. In the same way that Coombe repeats Annie Coombes' argument that hybridity is no guarantee of postcolonial self-determination (215), discussion of an emergent political-cultural-legal narrative such as the ambivalence of some indigenous responses to the law/culture interface would serve the text well.

I suspect my reading of the arguments involving indigenous cultural material is haunted by a moment in Coombe's Queen Street walk when "exquisite [Native] beadwork sits abandoned on dusty sheets of pegboard" (4). I have no doubt that this is factually true but in its retelling it ambivalently re-positions the author. On one hand she is both connoisseur ("exquisite") and sensitive observer ("abandoned") but there are shades of a nostalgic lament here that are a little discomforting (silk-screened tee-shirts are unlikely to be "exquisite"; a commercial product of another maker more likely to be "unsold" than "abandoned"). This discomfort reveals for me the risk with a study of this type that it comes across as being overly procrustean--venal commerce set beside creative intertextual appropriation. Nevertheless, Coombe counters this very argument when, for example, she points to the failure of both the demonized capital-based and Rabelaisian consumer carnivalesque schools of cultural studies to address the logic of the commodity as applied to cultural forms (134).

It remains her contention that intellectual property law enables such commodification because it is revealed not as an objective determiner of dispute but as an active force in the generation of signs and symbols with which the power-relationships of difference are constituted and given meaning. This is a contention argued forcefully and with considerable insight and subtlety throughout. Coombe makes an effective and provocative case against the assumed monologism of the normative positions of intellectual property regulation. At the same time, there is the implication that her commitment to dialogism is strong; strong enough to invite the sorts of questioning interventions such as those noted above--interventions that in no way diminish the text but are more like questions provoked in the reader's mind by it. This, it seems to me, makes this book an active player in discussions of intertextuality not simply a passive commentary. These qualities mark the text as a significant, indeed, groundbreaking contribution to revisionist and inter-disciplinary studies of intellectual property.


University of Auckland, New Zealand
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Author:Shand, Peter
Publication:Cultural Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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