Under fire for the prevalence of counterfeit goods available through his company’s platforms, e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Executive Chairman and co-founder Jack Ma explained that policing is a greater challenge now that the fakes are often of better quality than the authorized goods. “The problem,” said Ma, “is that the fake products today, they make better quality, better prices than the real names. The exact factories, the exact same materials, but they do not use their names.”
Like a blind taste test pitting fine wine against jugged swill, this condition threatens our notions of quality and authenticity, forcing recognition of the extent to which “copying” permeates our culture. That prevalence sparked artist and critic Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, a book that ranges from Buddhism to Baudrillard and Heidegger to hip hop in search of answers to a seemingly simple question: what is a copy? In the excerpt below, Boon circles the knock-off luxury that now plagues Jack Ma.
Brooklyn, New York, April 2008. A row of street stalls in front of graffiti-covered iron gates. Tables full of merchandise: Louis Vuitton handbags and wallets, with their familiar “LV” monograms; brown and beige; white with multicolor fruit-like designs. You can find them for sale on Canal Street in New York, in the night markets of Hong Kong and Singapore or the covered market in Mexico City, and in many other places around the world where the urban poor go to shop—“LV” articles piled up alongside the Patek Philippe watches, Chanel perfume, North Face jackets, and Adidas shoes. Copies, fakes, counterfeits; cheap, poorly made reproductions…or are they? For you are not in a night market, or on the street. You are standing inside the Brooklyn Museum, surrounded by cameras and elegantly dressed men and women; Kanye West is performing in another room in the building. This is the opening night for Copyright Murakami, a retrospective devoted to the work of Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami, including his celebrated collaborations with Louis Vuitton, such as the multicolor monogram handbag you just saw. And the bags in the street stalls are the real thing, made by Louis Vuitton, for sale at high prices. According to spokesmen for the company, the fake street stalls selling fake fakes are intended to draw attention to the phenomenon of counterfeiting, the production of illegal copies of Louis Vuitton’s products.
Vuitton handbags have been called the most copied objects in the world. This statement, part of the folklore of contemporary global consumer culture, seems immediately open to question. Louis Vuitton, after all, is a manufacturer of luxury goods which are defined, even in this age of global branding, by their scarcity. Internet folklore has it that only 1 percent of Louis Vuitton bags are actually made by the company. The copies, then, would be the 99 percent made by others. The selling of such mass-produced copies—which in its current form can be dated back to the 1970s, when Vuitton bags began to be made en masse in various East Asian locations—is not a new thing. In fact, Vuitton’s famous “LV” monogram was developed in 1896 by Louis Vuitton’s son Georges, as a trademark that would authenticate the family firm’s products, in response to the alleged copying of Vuitton Senior’s checkered-cloth design. Although Georges designed the monogram to distinguish his company’s products, today it is the distinctive “LV” logo that makes the bags so easy to copy.
The market for such copies has developed in surprising ways. Today in Taiwan, we are told that there are five grades of copy, ranging from the highest—which are handmade, almost indistinguishable from the bags made by Vuitton, and costing thousands of dollars—to the cheap plastic fakes available in night markets in cities. Some of these bags, which are sold complete with certificates of authenticity, fake receipts, and logo-stamped wrappings, have been “returned” to stores which sell the real items but which did not detect the replicas. On the other hand, famous movie stars have been spotted carrying Vuitton bags which include designs that are not actually made by the company. Furthermore, because of the difficulty in actually purchasing some of the limited-edition bags made by Vuitton and other companies such as Hermès, with its famous “Birkin” bag, it has become fashionable to celebrate rather than hide the fact that a bag is a copy, and the vogue for certain copies has resulted in their prices exceeding those of the originals that they supposedly imitate. Online, one can find images of Vuitton bags which bear the word “FAKE” in bold letters on the side of the bags.
The fragility of the trademark as an identifier of authenticity is illustrated by the fact that in China destruction of copies is often prohibitively expensive, and so labels from counterfeits are merely removed and the now-generic items sold in the marketplace again. Conversely, in order to circumvent the law on illegal vending of counterfeits in Counterfeit Alley in New York, fakes are often sold as “blanks” in one location, with logos and other trademarks being added at a second location later. The instability of the word “copy” in this situation is also illustrated by the fact that factories that produce “originals” under outsourcing contracts from international businesses may also produce the same goods illegally on the “ghost shift” at night, which are then sold as fakes or counterfeits. The ironies on the Vuitton side mount, too. The “LV” monogram was designed four years after Louis Vuitton’s death. The firm remained a family business for many years, but became a publicly traded company in 1984; the family lost control of the business in 1990, after a hostile takeover bid by Bernard Arnault that resulted in the formation of the “French” luxury conglomerate Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH). This shift was magnified by the hiring in 1997 of New York–based fashion designer Marc Jacobs as the brand’s artistic director and the hiring of global talent such as Murakami to develop product designs for the company. Although the company still makes luxury hand-crafted goods, it currently has 390 stores around the world. Unlike many other luxury businesses, Vuitton has resisted the urge to outsource production of its goods, maintaining fifteen factories in France; but the company also recently opened factories in Spain and the United States, and began a joint factory venture in Pondicherry in India. So Vuitton is a mass-producer of luxury, artisanal, unique individual bags, faking the faking of its own products at an art exhibition, while zealously pursuing the prosecution of the actual fakers through police action and courts of law around the world.
The not-by-chance meeting of Murakami and Vuitton in an art museum in Brooklyn embodies many of the contradictions involved in thinking about copies. Murakami is one of the most famous visual artists working today, exhibiting his paintings, the pinnacle of individualistic self-expression, in art museums, the most prestigious archives of the unique and original object. In the 2008 Brooklyn show, there was a Louis Vuitton boutique where the visitor could purchase some of the handbags Murakami designed in collaboration with Vuitton. A number of the paintings in the exhibition featured Vuitton’s logo incorporated into their complex “superflat” surfaces. At the entrance to the Copyright Murakami show, visitors were greeted by the statement: “The concept of copyright holds an exalted position within Murakami’s practice, rooted in the acknowledgment of his work as simultaneously interweaving deeply personal expression, high art, mass culture and commerce.” The title of the show references a long-standing stereotype concerning the illegal and anonymous production of copies in East Asia, and playfully transforms it. Murakami himself runs a company called Kaikai Kiki, which manages artists and produces and sells merchandise. At the same time, his own work is based on an explicit appropriation of materials from a variety of sources, including traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. Furthermore, the idea for the museum installation itself appears to have been copied from previous works, such as an installation by Fred Wilson at the 2003 Venice Biennale in which he hired a black man to stand outside the main pavilion selling fake generic designer bags, and Korean artist Zinwoo Park’s 2007 exhibition of real Louis Vuitton “Speedy” bags with the label “FAKE” attached to them.
The everyday saga of intellectual property and its protection is here elaborated to an unusual degree. Marc Jacobs may claim that the Brooklyn Museum’s tableau was just a little amusement, but the fact that all the players involved choose to pay close attention to such an apparently trivial matter as copying should indicate the existence of a crisis. Such a crisis might involve: the globalization of commerce and the transport of texts, images, symbols, objects, and products across national boundaries and cultural spaces in a way that calls into question the ownership of such things; the problem of when some “thing” can be called “art” and the ever-expanding role of the museum in legitimating objects as being art or otherwise, even as museums themselves are forced to function as part of a market economy; consequently, the erosion of the gap between financial and aesthetic value and the increasingly open question as to the source of the prestige of particular fabricated objects; the inability of the law to resolve, both intellectually and practically, questions about the identities of objects, about what can be claimed as private property or not, and what the rights of various parties as to the use of things are; last but not least, the apparent indifference of the general public to whether the things that they buy are “real” or “fake,” “original” or a “copy,” as evidenced by the expanding market for both originals and copies of many products.
So: what exactly constitutes a “copy” in this situation—or rather, what does not? Writing admiringly of the LV copies available in New York City, for example, fashion journalist Lynn Yaeger struggled to put her finger on the difference between an original LV bag and a well-made copy. The site Basicreplica.com, one of a number of Web-based companies that in 2009 offered high-end copies of Vuitton, along with Dior, Marc Jacobs, and others, proclaimed:
No tongue in cheek, we can honestly say that our Louis Vuitton replica bags are absolutely indistinguishable from the originals. You can take your Louis Vuitton replica handbag to a Louis Vuitton flagship store and compare, feel the leather, test the handles, check out the lining—not even a Louis Vuitton master craftsman will be able to tell which is the original and which the Louis Vuitton replica handbag from Basicreplica.com. Louis Vuitton replica bags with the same Alcantara lining, quality cowhide leather given a finish that oxidizes to a dark honey just the way the original Louis Vuitton handbags colour as they age, authentically original imitations of the real originals!
Aside from being a fabulous rhetorical flourish, what is an “authentically original imitation”? Or more specifically: What is a copy? In everyday parlance, the word “copy” designates an imitation of an original—for example, a copy of a Louis Vuitton bag. But a brief survey of the kinds of objects called “copies” today raises basic questions about this definition. What does it mean to say that something is a copy of something else? How is the claim that object A is a copy of object B established? What do we mean when we say that A is “like” B, that it imitates it? At first, these questions strike one as banal and the answers obvious or self-evident. But when original and copy begin to overlap to the extent that they do today (and the struggle to maintain the distinction between these two things, “original” and “copy,” is precisely what constitutes the crisis, to my mind); when original and copy are produced together in the same factory, at different moments; when a copy is actually self-consciously preferred to the original, we must ask again: What do we mean when we say “copy”?