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Can’t Stoppy That Copy

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By Nelson Schneider - 02/16/20 at 03:20 PM CT

The other day while doing some late-night reading, I noticed a large scratch across my wrist and immediately thought, “Yikes! It looks like I tried to kill myself!” I don’t know why I thought that, considering the scratch most likely came from hauling a load of firewood without gloves, but the seed of that thought has stuck with me. Why do we, in the 21st Century, immediately think of suicide when we think of scratches or cuts on the wrist? By all accounts of medical professionals, it’s a highly inefficient and dubiously effective way of offing oneself, yet the idea sits in our collective psyche like a leaden weight.

While the idea of suicide itself is as ancient as the human species, the slitting of the wrists is not a concept of ancient origin, as our ancestors were typically much more efficient and dedicated, either in drinking poison (usually at the behest of the local government) or jamming a sword into the neck or abdomen, guaranteeing that they wouldn’t “get better,” to quote the old man from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” No, it seems that wrist cutting is a more modern phenomenon, infused into our collective psyches by modern media, perhaps the novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” or the Oscar-winning film, “The Godfather Part II,” or some other piece of pop culture that I missed. However, after its first shocking appearance, suicide-by-wrist-slitting became a meme, and has been used in countless stories – and real-world happenings done in emulation of said stories – ever since.

Another recent activity with no ancient precedent is that of the mass-killing. Sure, ancient governments/churches are guilty of spilling more human blood than anything else, however, the modern phenomenon of the lone-wolf killer, a disgruntled person taking out their rage on colleagues, classmates, or bystanders, is a very new thing. People have led shitty lives for as long as there have been people. Bullies have existed for as long as there have been people. Yet mass-killings didn’t kick off in earnest until the event that rocked Columbine High School in 1999. We can’t take the wrong-headed view of the Democratic Party and place the blame on the presence of firearms, as semi-automatic weapons have existed since the end of World War II, meaning it took nearly half a century for someone to come up with the novel idea of using civilian firearms to air their grievances with their peers.

What do both of these grim topics have in common? And what do they have to do with videogames? In short, both of these unfortunate occurrences continually reoccur because of one of the defining characteristics of the human animal: We’re natural-born mimics.

No, we aren’t treasure chests with teeth and tongues, but from the moment we are pushed out of our mothers’ bodies, like giant suppurating turds, our coalescing minds latch onto things to emulate. It’s readily visible in the way children play and learn, emulating role models, parroting phrases, copying each other’s behavior, and memorizing fundamentals upon which they can build future layers of knowledge. If not for human mimicry, the thing called “civilization,” to which we owe everything, would not be able to spread. Ideas – both beneficial and baneful – are like computer viruses in the human mind, replicating and spreading, and there’s nothing practical that can be done to stop it.

Yet corporations – a special type of “people,” according to Citizens United – desperately want to stop everyone from copying “their” ideas (that is to say, ideas “owned” by the corporations, not necessarily created by them). This desperation is the foundation of Intellectual Property Law, and the Trump Administration is very proud of the fact that Baby Donny managed to “convince” China’s Winnie the Pooh to respect U.S. IP law under the U.S.-China Trade Deal. But when push comes to shove, I think China will be able to halt IP infringements about as effectively as the world at large has been able to halt wrist-slashings and mass-killings: The ideas are already out there; people with the inclination are going to copy them.

Most frustrating of all about the “need” express dominance over Intellectual Property is the stagnation of the public domain. From the very beginnings of the concept of copyright, it was naturally assumed that it would be for a limited amount of time. The original length of copyright in the U.S. was only 14 years. Yes, you read that right, FOURTEEN! And with a single extension for a further 14 years, even the longest duration of copyright would clock in under 30 years. If we still had this system, as we enter to 2020s, all of the ROMs for 1st through 3rd Generation videogame consoles (including the much-beloved Nintendo Entertainment System) would be part of the public domain. Vintage hardware would likewise be freely copyable by companies and individuals other than the original creator/rightsholder. The free availability of these old works would be a great source of enrichment for society at large.

Yet copying isn’t THE central defining characteristic of the human animal: That would be storytelling. Evolutionary biology is more and more leaning toward the idea that the homo sapiens is “the storytelling ape,” in that the way we think, feel, and organize ourselves within our social groups are all based on narrative structures we hold in our minds and share with each other. As a Classicist – which is not a science – the obsession with storytelling is plainly visible to me from the vast majority of human history that took place before someone came up with the idea of requiring others to pay for stories. Ancient texts are a hodgepodge patchwork of borrowed ideas, uncited quotations, and other things we today would consider “plagiarism.” Even the Bible – alleged by fundamentalists to have been written literally by God – is full of re-used materials from other sources. If violating copyright is good enough for God, why is it such a problem when mere mortals do it? (Of course, the same goes for genocide and bullying, so maybe we shouldn’t actively try to emulate God.)

Yet the vicious irony of the whole situation is that the “people” with all the money and power are far more interested in suppressing the natural human need to copy and share stories when it comes to their Intellectual Property than when it comes to self-destructive and homicidal behavior. And we can’t look to the other side of the socio-political spectrum for salvation, either, as the Liberal media is currently very upset about a mentally ill child being “involuntarily” committed to a mental health facility… you know, the places where the mentally ill can receive treatment.

Whether it’s (un)creative ways of killing ourselves and each other, or the narratives that enrich our lives and provide us with some sort of “meaning,” mimics gonna mimic, and there’s no force in the universe that can stop us. At best, our governing apparatus should turn a blind eye to harmless copying in order to free up more resources to combat the more insidious type, even knowing it will be impossible to eradicate, since the metaphorical genie is already out of the bottle.

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