Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Kedron Thomas's "Regulating Style"

Kedron Thomas is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is coeditor, with Kevin Lewis O’Neill, of Securing the City: Neoliberalism, Space, and Insecurity in Postwar Guatemala.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Regulating Style: Intellectual Property Law and the Business of Fashion in Guatemala, and reported the following:
Fashion knock-offs are everywhere. Even in the out-of-the-way markets of highland Guatemala, fake branded clothes offer a cheap, stylish alternative for people who can’t afford high-priced originals. Fashion companies have taken notice, ensuring that international trade agreements include stronger intellectual property (IP) protections to prevent and punish brand “piracy,” the unauthorized reproduction of trademarked brand names and logos. Regulating Style approaches the fashion industry from the perspective of indigenous Maya people who make and sell knock-offs, asking why they copy and wear popular brands, how they interact with legal frameworks and state agents who criminalize their livelihoods, and exploring the ethics and values that structure their trade.

Rather conveniently for the purposes of this post, page 99 summarizes some of the main arguments put forth in one of the book’s central chapters. Here is a brief excerpt:
IP protections are one set of legal mechanisms by which Guatemala is supposed to demonstrate that it is on the “progressive path” toward development and becoming a fully modern nation-state … and by which its citizens are to be reoriented toward formal, rational market participation. Maya businessmen are not strategically engaging in illegal behavior because of a proclivity toward crime, however. The values that inform their design, production, and marketing decisions cannot be described accurately in terms of a dualism between collectivist societies and Western individualism, as if concern for one’s neighbors and an ethic of sharing were antiquated features of a precapitalist or otherwise primitive national culture. Guatemalan apparel producers are not defying the law out of some kind of simple self-interest either. In point of fact, they are actively constructing an industry and a marketplace for fashionable garments in highland Guatemala at a felt distance from the rights-bearing corporations that seem so troubled by their “lawbreaking.”
The point is that social scientists, policy makers, and the corporations that support strong IP protections tend to frame copying and imitation as culturally backwards, economically detrimental, and also morally wrong. But what do the people who copy fashion logos think about what they are doing? This excerpt hints at the fact that indigenous Maya people who design, make, and sell knock-off fashions place tremendous value on creativity and innovation and have their own ethics, explored at length in the book, regarding when and how one may copy. These on-the-ground realities of knock-off fashion production challenge the models of economic rationality and development on which IP law rests.

Page 99 wraps up an argument about cultural difference and ethnographic specificity, but that is only one part of the story. The book goes on to demonstrate that IP law misconstrues the function of trademarks in the fashion system writ large – whether one is talking about highland Guatemala, Paris, or New York. In all of these fashion scenes, trademarked brand names and logos are commonly used as design elements and have an aesthetic role in the constitution of style. IP law claims, however, to protect signatures of corporate ownership and authenticity. This discrepancy (and others explored in the book) raises questions about why IP law matters for the global industry and what it accomplishes. My contention is that what is really at stake in enforcement efforts is the maintenance of racial, class, gender, and geographical divides that position some populations as rightful creators and consumers and others as mere copycats.
Learn more about Regulating Style at the University of California Press.

--Marshal Zeringue