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Creators v. Consumers

From Rob Walker, the gifted journalist and consumer guru who called attention to Prestigious' "Stop Rockin' Fake Shit" T-shirts, comes notice of a new blog, StartRockintheFakeSht.  As the name implies, the anonymous authors both support knockoffs and call into question the value of authentic merchandise -- and some seem angrier than others. 

But why such polarized views on rockin' fake shit?

It's all a matter of perspective.  First consider creation.  An aspiring creator who manages to sell a painting, a story, or a dress can't necessarily afford to be copied by a commercial venture that recognizes the value of the work and can engage in cheap mass production-- but doesn't want to pay the creator.  Even established creators may suffer from the presence of a large quantity of knockoffs in the market, since they dilute the value and perceived quality of originals.  "Fake shit" thus harms creators, especially if not enough consumers insist on having an original, authentic work. 

Now consider consumption.  An aspirational consumer who wants a design wants it NOW -- and doesn't necessarily want to pay the creator's price or accept the concept of limited production.  Such desire may be cast in anti-elitist or faux populist terms, but at base it is not about basic life needs (even, in most cases, information); it is about individual aesthetic gratification.  Such a consumer will envy wealthier or better connected consumers who do have access the item, especially if it is an obviously expensive "status good."  (It is, however, inaccurate to cast all targeted originals as extremely expensive; both creativity and copying occur at all price points.)  From the perspective of the covetous consumer, then, "fake shit" offers instant gratification and mocks both consumers and creators of genuine goods.

Intellectual property law intends to benefit both creators and consumers -- by focusing its protections on creators.  Ask any U.S. IP student about the purpose of the system, and you'll (hopefully!) be reminded of the Article 1, section 8, clause 8 of the Constitution, which empowers Congress:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries....

The immediate benefit is to creators, to "Authors and Inventors."  The collective benefit is to society at large, which gains from "the Progress of Science and useful Arts" and from having creators with the opportunity develop their skills.  The eventual benefit is to individual consumers, not because they can immediately rock fake shit, but because more creativity means more choices overall in the long run. 

We are all consumers.  And virtually all of us (Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama aside) have been covetous consumers at some point or other, whether or not our desires would have been satisfied by knockoffs.

In modern industrialized economies and in the internet era, more and more of us are also creators.  We are no longer dependent on agriculture or manufacturing to support the economy; we rely instead on industries that generate intellectual property.  Moreover, while a creative class still supplies us with music, movies, literature, and other artistic diversions, there's also YouTube, MySpace, and Second Life.  Both in our work lives and in our private lives, creative endeavor is not specialized but universal. 

And if we are all creators, then the debate over whether to stop or to start rockin' fake shit takes on a whole new dimension.