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Illegal Literature: Toward a Disruptive Creativity

by David S. Roh
Minnesota University Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2015
200 pp., illus. 17 b & w. Trade, $75.00; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 9780816695751; ISBN: 9780816695782.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

All of us who are doing editorial work –and who doesn't? – are daily struggling with many forms of copyright issues that seem all the more absurd since the rise of the internet has radically modified both the practice of textual and other reproduction (technically speaking, one can copy and circulate all kinds of information in just one click) and the very attitude toward the idea of reusing and sharing it (digital born prosumers do not feel that they are infringing any copyright legislation when they appropriate texts and images). At first sight, David S. Roh's book takes sides with all those who make a radical plea for the "liberation" of information and data, that is for the dismantling of copyright as it currently exists (yet not in the same way in all countries, for place matters in this context). What makes this book so interesting, however, is the very nuanced approach of the stakes of "free" information, in the double sense of the word: unlimited by legal and commercial regulations on the one hand and involving no costs on the other hand. Il-legal literature is not a libertarian manifesto claiming the right to reject all that opposes, restricts or criminalizes the free use of protected material, but a sound reflection on possible alternatives to the almost absolute divide between legal and illegal practices, which the author thinks is damaging for everybody. Too strong a divide between the legal and the illegal is not only an obstacle to creativity and innovation, it is also in the long run problematic for those who currently benefit from the absolute legal protection of creative work (authors, publishers, copyright holders).

Roh's book opens with an excellent discussion on the notion of creativity, before moving to some sound arguments on disruptive creativity. Concerning creativity, the author relies upon a subtle and complex but very well-built theoretical framework that borrows insights from three fields: first cultural studies, where Raymond Williams's distinction between residual, dominant, and emergent structures of feeling help build an argument against essentialism (for instance the essential difference between "good" and "bad" writing); second, polysystems theory, as elaborated by Itamar Even-Zohar who offers a very supple and open way of tackling the interaction between canonical and marginal or peripheral writing; third, Russian Formalism, here studied via the well-known book of Victor Erlich that puts a strong emphasis on the Bakthinian notions of dialogue and parody. Disruptive creativity, on the other hand, is also discussed from different points of view, which enables Roh to keep at a certain distance the neo-liberal sense of creative destruction (Schumpeter). Finally, the reflection on non-canonical and unauthorized reuse of protected material brings the author to distinguish between three different types of illegal cultural production, namely plagiarism, piracy, and parody, the differences of which is clearly demonstrated in the book. For unlike plagiarism and piracy, parody is the only type of illegal literature that really attacks the heart of the system, which is a combination of the author as the unique maker and absolute individual producer of a work of art and the copyright system that prevents any kind of unauthorized reuse. Plagiarism and piracy do not aim at disrupting the position of author and copyright, they only try to use it to their benefit. Parody instead is a practice that really disrupts author and copyright.

Before discussing the three case studies that complement and illustrate Roh's claims, the author addresses also the advantages of a more open and relaxed approach of authorship and copyright legislation, but he always does so by considering the larger context of these issues, that is the triple combination of culture (our worship of the individual author as unique genius), economy (the distribution system that makes the work of individual creators accessible to a larger audience) and law (the copyright system that does not defend the rights of the users but those of the author and the economic agents that benefit from the protection of individual authorship) as well as by examining the effects of legality and illegality in the long run, for there are often dramatic differences between the short-term consequences and the long-term consequences of a given policy. According to Roh, a less restricted interpretation of copyright and ownership does not only profit to users, communities, and society at large, but also to creativity, including from an economic point of view. The more people are allowed to be culturally active–and this activity often involves illegal or quasi-illegal practices–the more positive effects one can observe on, for instance, the quality of the works that are produced and also the sales figures of the works in the fields that are dynamized by open access and free reuse. Once again, however, Roh does not defend the destruction or the disappearance of the existing cultural, economic, and legal models. He is perfectly aware of the limitations of a "horizontal" distribution system, that is a system that abolishes the boundaries between maker and user, just as he recognizes the foibles of the open source movement or the necessity of acknowledging the merits and rights of individual creators. The model Roh quotes as an example of the possible and even fruitful coexistence of closure and openness is what he calls the "versioning" model in open access software development, which fosters creativity through reuse while not pulling apart the economic and legal system that organizes the software business. It is up to the reader to imagine what this may represent in the field of cultural production.

Roh's reader may find inspiration in the three case studies that are examined in detail in this book. Each of them analyzes a different angle or perspective of the larger field of cultural parody. First, a case that focuses on the actual work: the literary parodies (here represented by the double example of parodic rewritings of Lolita and Gone With the Wind). Second, a case that foregrounds the audience: the traditional but rapidly changing practice of fan culture and fan prosumerism (here epitomized by the well-tolerated and almost institutionalized practice of manga parodies). And third, a case that highlights the importance of the network (via several examples of collaborative development and file-sharing). All chapters offer a good mix of enthusiastic acclaim of openness (or illegality, according to the perspective of those who stick to a rigid interpretation of authorship as ownership) and critical distance towards naïve libertarianism. Together with the excellent theoretical framing of illegal culture in the broader context of dialogism and parody, this awareness of pros and cons of either position makes Roh's book a stimulating contribution to a key contemporary debate that is certainly here to stay for many years.

Last Updated 1 April 2016

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