Faking it

Now there's an unoriginal idea


Fakes and copies — the words conjure up images of brand-name goods that aren’t; trademarks purloined; forged money and passports; pirated CDs, software and videos . . . and even archaeological finds that weren’t as historic as they were purported to be.

But look again. In the same society where such surrogates are frowned upon — or even considered criminal — there are many doubles that simply don’t fit the negative stereotype.

More than that, fakes (things that pretend to be what they are not) and copies (reproductions of an “authentic” original) can be beneficial, educational or simply more accessible than the real thing. Whether it’s patented drugs that put breakthrough treatments within the reach of developing countries, or an Impressionist print in a classroom that helps kids to appreciate art, many fakes and copies have a crucial role to play.

Take the copies that are, in some cases, the only evidence left that an original ever existed. Some of Japan’s most famous landmarks are replicas: Osaka Castle (destroyed in 1868, rebuilt in 1931 and refurbished after World War II — complete with elevator); or Kyoto’s Kinkakuji Temple (rebuilt in 1955 after being burned to the ground in 1950).

These copies aren’t mere reproductions — they fire the imagination with their evocation of times past. In the museum collection of the University of Tokyo, for example, is a 19th-century replica of a famous diamond with a colorful history. This 53.5-carat gemstone, nicknamed Sancy, was once owned by Louis XIV. Stolen during the French Revolution, the gem disappeared for decades. It resurfaced at the Paris Exposition in 1867, only to vanish once more. Its current location is unknown.

The French palace of Versaille, once the home of Sancy, is one of the attractions at Tobu World Square amusement park in Tochigi Prefecture. The park features miniature replicas of international landmarks, scaled down to 1/25th their actual size. Not only is a walk round the park a quickest-ever world tour, but the fact that visitors tower over most of the structures means they get an aerial view, in a way they never could otherwise.

At Walt Disney World in the United States, visitors can walk into the Hall of Presidents and and meet with life-size replicas of historical leaders. Similarly, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London is one of Britain’s top tourist draws, giving visitors a chance to “meet” celebrities and famous historical personages from all over the world.

Of course, a Plasticine dummy can’t tell you that much, but copies can be invaluable learning aids, giving access to places and objects otherwise beyond our reach. In many ways, copying is the heart of an educational experience.

“Kids learn from their parents by copying,” says Tokyo-based patent attorney Tsutomu Toyama. “Without the freedom to copy, I don’t think society, culture or the individual can grow.”

The arts have always made use of copying as a discipline for those learning their craft, whether they are painters, potters, writers or actors. As Yoshiaki Nishino, professor of museum technology at the University of Tokyo, puts it, “Many great artists copied their predecessors and absorbed prototypes, and then developed their originality from there.”

Nishino was the driving force behind an exhibition at the University Museum last year titled “Between Original and Reproduction — The Art of Making Copies — from D(uchamp) to D(NA).” He observes that the perception of copies as inferior to originals only arose in the 19th century. At that time, he explains, creativity came to be prized alongside the mastery of technique: “Originality” became a valued quality in artwork.

It’s the same with the performing arts — theater, music and dance. According to entertainment critic Noboru Saijyo, “Entertainers begin by copying their masters, and they gradually begin to develop their own styles.”

Individuals aren’t the only ones learning by copying. During the Meiji Era, Japan copied Western models of governance and education as it set about a systematized modernization program that propelled it into the ranks of the world’s so-called Great Powers in a matter of mere decades. After World War II, the copying of Western technology by Japanese manufacturers was a significant force behind the country’s postwar recovery.

One homegrown entrepreneurial innovation, however, was a breakthrough made by Kokichi Mikimoto at the turn of the 20th century. He was the first to successfully culture pearls by farming pearl oysters. Thanks to Mikimoto’s discovery, Japan became the world’s leading producer of cultured pearls, allowing more women around the world to enjoy the genuine article. At last, fake plastic pearls could be discarded in favor of the real thing.

But though no one, surely, would choose fake pearls over a string of Mikimoto’s iridescent cultured pearls, the price-tag may mean that many have to settle for fakes after all. This is the familiar face of the “fake”: the handbag that almost — but not quite — resembles that of a designer brand; the shirt with a familiar logo at a rock-bottom price. These things are cheaper, sure, but second-best — aren’t they?

It’s not always like that. If you want to look good without emptying your wallet, it can make sense to opt for a fake. Brand-name rip-offs may be illegal, but fake leather and fur do a convincing imitations of the real thing at a fraction of the cost. What’s more, they don’t cost any creature its skin — a powerful incentive for many buyers.

Speaking of which, animals have long used sophisticated forms of “fakery” as a way of saving their skins. Imitation is the evolutionary key to the survival of numerous species. Probably the best-known example is the cuckoo. The eggs of this wily avian are almost identical to those of the birds — often shrikes or buntings — in whose nests it lays them. In this way, the hatchling is reared by the unwitting foster parents, freeing the adult cuckoo of all parental responsibilities.

In the insect world, mimicry takes some fascinating forms. Wasps, for example, aren’t striped black-and-yellow by accident. They’re examples of what is known as Millerian mimicry: Their colored stripes have evolved as a defense, a warning signal to would-be predators that they pack a powerful sting.

Also cashing in on this evolutionary benefit are “fakes” such as the hover fly, which, through a process known as Batesian mimicry, has come to resemble a wasp. Its stripes keep predators at bay, even though it has no sting.

In both nature and society, fakes and copies can have a valuable role. They even entertain us — who hasn’t laughed at the skill of a comedian’s successful impersonation? This showbiz take on imitation has cultural roots stretching back centuries. Japanese audiences enjoyed shows of mimicry as early as the 14th century, says critic Saijyo. Early kyogen comedians imitated animals, and in the later years of the Edo Period, kabuki actors were the role models of popular professional mimics called kowairoya who performed in amusement districts.

That tradition continues to this day, Saijyo points out, with most TV stations hosting high-rating shows featuring mimics and impersonators. Popular comedians like Tamori and Akashiya Sanma started out by mimicking celebrities — and are now impersonated in turn by other entertainers.

There’s less to laugh about, perhaps, when we turn to the future of fakery and copying. “Most new technologies are developed based on earlier discoveries, which means copying is virtually unavoidable,” says patent attorney Toyama, who specializes in the computer software and automobile-industry fields.

That calls for careful regulation of intellectual property issues, Toyama notes, explaining that the Patent Law aims to strike a balance between protecting the creative rights of the inventor while making his inventions available for others to use and learn from.

Patents are at the heart of the current controversy over generic drugs — chemically identical “copies” of medicines developed and patented by major pharmaceutical companies. Generic drugs retail at an average $17 per prescription, according to a statement by President George W. Bush on Oct. 21., compared to $72 for the brand-name equivalent. Since the development of a single drug can cost up to $800 million, patents are critical in safeguarding a company’s investment.

However, some question the refusal of companies such as Glaxo-Wellcome, developer of HIV-drug AZT, to allow generic copying of drugs still under patent. The brand-name pharmaceuticals are too costly for countries such as South Africa and India, which urgently need access to them. Whichever way the issue is decided, affordable copycat generic drugs offer hope to millions.

And if one subject promises to dominate future scientific discourse, it is also to do with our ability (and right) to produce copies — of humans. Cloning of human beings may be close to becoming reality, and lawyers, psychologists and philosophers are already asking what manner of person such a human “copy” would be, with what rights and what identity. As it should be clear by now, not all copies are inherently “bad” — but not even the experts know what human cloning will bring.