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

Author:Shand, Peter
Position:Book review

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...

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