Better Than Gingko Biloba
The struggle against copyright improves memory

by Wu Ming 1

If archeologists still exist in the remote future, they will feel disturbed and perplexed when faced with the scant remains of the capitalist era, like sitting on the edge of a black hole, antimatter rubbing their shoes and provoking tickling.
And it will be because our time threatens to convert itself into nothing more than an enigma, like Atlantis, like Mu, like the civilization that drew the trails of Nazca. The social formation that has produced the greatest quantity of information since the dawn of time runs the risk of being the least known in the next centuries. The sole "testimonies" that we are sure will endure are nuclear residues, toxic waste, and garbage.

But, why? And what about literature, science, cinema, music…?

At first glance, there are three problems:
-the perishability of the materials (and of the information platforms),
-the obsolescence of the technologies (part of the general problem of the planned obsolescence of commodities);
-intellectual property, the defense of which imposes a closed number on information, which prohibits copying. The medieval monks that copied and saved ancient books would be persecuted by the law today.

Various science-fiction novels and stories describe the great problem of a future without a past. A short story by Robert Silverberg, Breckenridge and the Continuum, shares with Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel, The Telling, the idea that the problem can only be resolved through story-telling and copying, copying and story-telling, making stories circulate, and removing any obstacle to this circulation.
Le Guin, born in 1929, is the grand dame of libertarian science-fiction, creator of the famous Ekumene cycle. The Telling belongs to this cycle, but, as with all the other episodes, it can be read independently. On the planet Aka there rules the dictatorship of a state-enterprise ("the Corporation"), a synthesis of neoliberal fanaticism and “Pol Pot-ism”, which has tried to destroy all pre-existent histories and myths. The communities, among others the city of Okzat-Okzat, resist and turn to thousands of subterfuges in order to continuing telling histories. "The Telling" is precisely the name of this religion of storytelling, without super-natural entities, with elements similar to Taoism and Zen. “Dharma without karma” is one of the approximate descriptions given by the protagonist, the terrestrial Sutty, sent by Ekumene to study this culture of resistance and, by copying its texts, to save it from extinction.
At one point, a maz (shaman-storyteller) affirms that not only war and exploitation but pollution and ecocide also are consequences of a great perturbation in the transmission of stories, an interference caused by the logic of capitalism:

"...without the telling, the rocks and plants and animals go on all right. But the people don't. People wander around. They don't know a mountain from its reflection in a puddle. They don't know a path from a cliff. They hurt themselves. They get angry and hurt each other and the other things. They hurt animals because they're angry. They make quarrels and cheat each other. They want too much. They neglect things. Crops don't get planted. Too many crops get planted. Rivers get dirty with shit. Earth gets dirty with poison. People eat poison food. Everything is confused. Everybody's sick. Nobody looks after the sick people, the sick things. But that's very bad, very bad, eh? Because looking after things, that's our job, eh? Looking after things, looking after each other. Who else would do it? Trees? Rivers? Animals? They just do what they are. But we're here, and we have to learn how to be here, how to do things, how to keep things going the way they need t go. The rest of the world knows its business [...] But all we know is how to learn. How to study, how to listen, how to talk, how to tell. If we don't tell the world, we don't know the world. We're lost in it, we die. But we have to tell it right, tell it truly. That's what went wrong [...] Telling people that nobody knew the truth but them, nobody could speak but them, everybody had to tell the same lies they told. Traitors, usurers! Leading people astray for money! Getting rich off their lies, bossing people! No wonder the world stopped going around! No wonder the police took over!"

Capitalism perturbs the transmission of histories. It is a mode of production terrorized by “past-ism” and, therefore, sick with futurophobia: in the name of the eternal present of production and consumption, it impedes the transmission of culture and memory to our descendents (and meanwhile places their health and life in danger).
We are living through a new silent and invisible burning of the library of Alexandria. Tapes scratch and demagnetize, films lose clarity, electronic memories deterioriate, paper breaks down. Among the "testimonies" that resist and survive, many have become mute because we have lost the technologies to interrogate them.
From the Paleolithic onwards, the vulnerability of information platforms has not ceased increasing. Altamira and Lascaux’s designs, fixed in bare rock, have survived fifteen thousand years, to be discovered in 1879 and 1940 respectively (and running the risk, in the case of Lascaux, of being destroyed by a fungus carried by the hordes of tourists.) The code of Hammurabi, engraved on a diorite stele around four thousand years ago, was found and translated in 1901. The Rosetta stone, engraved in basalt in 196 B.C., was translated more than two thousand years later by Champollion. Clay tablets engraved with cuneiform writing, frequent in Mesopotamia between the third and first centuries B.C., are still legible. Many documents written on papyrus (until the fourth century A.D.) and on parchment have deteriorated, but are still legible and restorable (and, in any case, they continue to exist). The paper used until the end of 1870 is yellowing but preserved. Some wax phonograph cylinders, though deteriorated, would still be listenable, but there are no phonographs left.
By contrast, the cellulose paper manufactured from the end of the 19th century until today consumes itself due to the acids that it contains. Following existing calculations, already twenty five percent of books dating from post-1870 preserved in the libraries of the world have been destroyed. Vinyl discs fill up with scratches and small holes, begin to "crackle" and "skip" - listening to them destroys them. Acetate cellulose films are extremely fragile and must be restored ever more often. The sound of magnetic tapes little by little become more quiet and tenuous, and often there is no longer any way to read them, as happened with the old 8 track tapes. VHS images disappear without stopping.

And digital technology?

The giddy development of hardware and software burns every bridge it crosses. We have already lost an indeterminate quantity of the data kept on 5.25 inch diskettes, because we have scrapped the computers that could read them. Now it's the turn of 3.5 inch disks. In addition, we have pushed numerous species of software to extinction (who can read a text written with Wordstar today?).
The diffusion of free software and open-source software could be a solution: it limits the planned obsolescence of hardware (since its objective is to function well in any machine, not to to force you to buy a new computer) and protects "biodiversity" (since it is based on free cooperation, there is no interest in doing away with the “losers” ). By contrast, the perishability of magnetic and optico-magnetic platforms remains. The data stored on a CD or a CD-ROM certainly don’t remain for much time. Ever more often CDs begin to skip like vinyl discs (even though the dynamic is distinct). This question of time begins to occur with DVDs.
Today there are experiments with using bacteria as "libraries", documents saved in the filaments of DNA (nanotechnological versions of the Incan quipos). In sum, we are passing to the most perishable platform ever, not to mention that those without the necessary technology won't able to decipher them, or even recognize them as platforms. A new closed border for information.
Faced with these problems, what should we do? Return to engraving messages in stone? Then there wouldn’t be a single mountain left standing on the planet. No, the only solution is to do like the scribes of yesteryear: copy, copy, copy. In technical jargon, this is called "migration" (in the case of data that passes continually from one computer to another new one) or "refreshing" (in the case of data that passes from one old platform to a new one: from analog to digital, etc). If we think about it, this has always happened: "migrations" of texts from one book to another book, "refreshing" of a document from hand-writing to the printing press. We should continue doing this. But capital does everything it can to prevent us from doing it. Here the problem of copyright and intellectual property reappears, as Paolo Attivissimo has explained:

The arrival of anti-copy systems allows the creation of revocable platforms. Allowing the discography and the Hollywood corporate bosses to define the sell-by date limits the execution to determinate persons and determinate places or apparatuses. It is a matter of things that are already happening, for example with promotional Oasis CDs sent to magazines, with DVD region codes, and with films and music downloaded from sites like (which, among other things, only can be accessed from the United States, as we wanted to demonstrate).
In sum, the diffusion of anti-copy systems … dramatically changes the rules of the game. Digital tapes can be deactivated at a distance and have an intrinsic expiration date: in fact, they depend on proprietary formats, a specific operating system and a specific hardware which will be obsolete and no longer available in a few years, and will not be able to be transferred to other platforms (unless one turns to piracy) because they are coded to do so.
Who knows how the historians of the future will feel when they can not study our century’s music, films, and digital books because they will not know how to crack the protections: the platforms will continue existing and each bit will be perfectly legible, but there will be no way to decode them because the access codes will have been lost. (Paulo Attivissimo, “Pirates? No, Guardians of Culture”,, December 17th 2002).

Attivissimo continues and concludes:

… there are those who, thank heaven, are working to preserve our culture and transmit it to our descendents, and they are not from an institution, a library or a government agency: they are informatic pirates.
In fact, pirate copies of films and DVDs don’t have protection codes and use non-proprietary formats to obtain maximum diffusion. These formats are independent of operating systems and are fully documented, by which future generations will have an easy task recreating technologies capable of reading them. The same can not be said of the formats blessed by the large associations of the music and film industries, who seek to armor-plate the hardware […] Like medieval scribes, these licensing masters create copies of works that will not be lost because of the collective myopia of an epoch. Certainly this is not the principal objective of these duplications, but a beneficial collateral effect that we should not undervalue. (Ibid.)

Put simply: copyright is the enemy (and “piracy” the friend) of the future, of migration, of refreshing. Being punctilious, we say that Attivissimo raises the problem of how to find an antidote to the obsolescence of technologies and proprietary formats, but not to the perishability of the platforms. We are not so sure that in the future “the platforms will continue existing and each bit will be perfectly legible”. However, the antidote (migration and refreshing thanks to “piracy”) also works for this other poison. If we continue telling stories, everything keeps in movement and spreads beyond the present environment.
Clearly, the problem of testimony and the transmission of memory is not the only one in the world: there is also a whole life to reconquer, for us and our descendants. In this task, the critique of intellectual property is a necessary but not a sufficient condition, because the problem is property, period. We are so conditioned by the idea of No Future that we don't understand that the ground and the Earth are the property of no one, to the contrary, we have borrowed them from our heirs, whom we tend to forget. The day will come in which they will be here and we will no longer be. We should hand over the earth in better conditions than we found it, and yet postwerity will inherit it full of trash, miasma and venom. If we don’t manage to reverse this course, we can at least try to leave a testimony that our descendants can study to know why we were so daft … and come to a conclusion that escaped us.

Bologna, October 18th, 2003
Translated by Nate Holdren, 2004