On owning culture

We feel ownership of the bits of culture that we like. We love to make our favorite pieces of culture our own, and we do it in a variety of ways.

If it's a painting we love, we might get a hold of a reproduction and hang it in our home. If it's a poem, we might write out a copy of it in calligraphy and post it in our living space. If it's a song, we might have a CD of it as well as copies on our computer's hard drive and our iPod as well.

Sometimes we see something that someone else did--maybe it's simple like a hairstyle or maybe it's more of a project like dying jeans--and we're inspired to do our own version of the same thing. We're always reproducing pieces of culture, and at times we imitate with our own twist, altering the culture slightly as we propagate it. We make our own private nests of culture, customizing the world we live in.

cemetery at Erdeven

On a recent visit to France, I was confronted by a surprising example of owned culture. It happened at the graveyard of Erdeven in Brittany.

grave in Erdeven

There, I came across this grave of a teenage boy.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince on a grave

In a cemetery full of polished stone and Celtic crosses, the back of the boy’s grave stood out. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince is as famous in France as Mickey is throughout the world, but somehow I couldn't imagine Disney's main mouse on any grave.

Maybe that's because the Prince has a melancholy about him that's more suited to a graveyard than Mickey's high-pitched jauntiness, but it probably also has something to do with the fact that Disney holds an iron grip on all the culture it produces. After all, amateur images of the mouse and his friends are regularly painted out of schoolyard murals and the like when the mega-company threatens mega-lawsuits.

Ron English's Mousetrap

Ron English’s Mousetrap

And it's a real shame that we can't own Mickey as we'd like to. It makes him seem separate or other. In fact, I think it makes him more likely to be mocked by Ron English, among others. Mickey has become a symbol of everything boring in culture, and Disney only has its copyright lawyers to blame.

Culture is meant to be owned by everyone, not just its creator. And that’s not just because every piece of culture is created only by stealing from culture that came before it. It's more than a matter of honoring where innovation comes from. Simply put: culture belongs to everyone because it is a living thing that requires each of us to breathe our creativity into it.

The inclination to make pieces of culture our own is natural, undeniable, and healthy. And Disney along with everyone who believes in copyright might want to examine the ways they own culture if they don't think so.

- My copyright and my copy place
- About competition / Sur la concurrence
- How I make sure my art doesn't get ripped off on the Internet

Gwenn Seemel is a French-American artist who blogs bilingually.


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