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Books | Copycats

Books | Copycats

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A review of The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman

Last week, luxury shoe designer Christian Louboutin (sort of) won his lawsuit against rival French fashion house Yves Saint Laurent concerning Louboutin's trademarked red high heeled soles. This week, New York Fashion Week concluded its presentation of the Spring 2013 collections. Next week, The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation (Oxford University Press, $27.95) debuts, a possible cure or curse to those besotted with a fashion hangover.

Previously, I’d only thought of “knockoffs” in terms of clothing and Canal Street. Yet law professors Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman devote just one chapter to apparel (as expected, the introduction begins with the race to replicate Oscar gowns). Chef turf, comedian turf, football turf and much other ground is covered in 233 pages (the total minus acknowledgements, notes and index).

And yet…the book is two-thirds too long. I wanted to pour all the words into a colander and vigorously shake out the repetitiveness (For example: “…we live in a Golden Age of cuisine,” (10); “In many respects we are living in a golden age of cuisine…” (59); “Indeed, like cuisine, it is fair to say we are living in a golden age of cocktails,” (91)). I would have gladly edited the extra drafts that this very, very well-researched volume deserved.

To oversimplify, each chapter asks a question, tells us why we need to answer the question, tells us the history behind the question, tells us how we can answer the question, tells us why it was important to answer the question, and summarizes all of the above. The intro and conclusion mirror each other, an amalgam of all these questions and answers. Anecdotes from the introduction are repeated almost verbatim in their respective chapters.

As much as I wanted to, I could not connect with what I was reading, despite pop culture references aplenty. The Knockoff Economy was a slog for me: copyrights, trademarks, patents, derivative works, infringement, plagiarism, etc. The authors took the time to explain many of our oddball laws in conversational legalese – you can copyright a cookbook but not a cookbook’s recipe; you can trademark a font’s name but not the font – yet I still felt I was reading a how-to book written without an intended audience.

Raustiala and Sprigman are bright and articulate. I think the biggest misjudgment – either an accident or a lack of foresight – was made when titling the text. First impression if I saw this book on a shelf: totally positive. The Knockoff Economy. That sounds like nerdy fun, a beach read for a Goldman Sachs analyst in the Hamptons. Now the full title – The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation. The intrigue lasts a few seconds, but once you start to process it, everything clicks. Of course imitation sparks innovation. Designers, chefs and musicians don’t want to be copied (except for those who do), so they’ve got to create constantly. They’ve got to stay one step ahead of the competitive vultures. Creation may mean collaboration. Imitation may mean calling back to a bygone era. Innovation can mean almost anything. Standing in the bookstore, your brain quickly makes these leaps, begging the question, “If I already get the gist, why buy the book?"

In 2006, celebrated economist Steven D. Levitt and veteran journalist Stephen J. Dubner published the mega best seller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (HarperCollins), which spawned a sequel, film, podcast and blog, for which Raustiala and Sprigman both write (and The Knockoff Economy was excerpted). I loved Freakonomics, with mesmeric chapters such as, “What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common?” I had hoped Raustiala and Sprigman would be a Levitt and Dubner redux. I did get really excited about two parts of The Knockoff Economy – how mixologists and magicians keep their respective secrets – but they added up to just nine pages.

Like many socioeconomic books, the success of Freakonomics hinged on the literary marriage between an expert and a journalist. The expert is entrenched in academia; the journalist relays complexities in a way accessible to the masses. The Knockoff Economy could have benefited from a third author, preferably a female journalist – women outnumber men in this country, and their economic influence is ever-increasing (last year a marketing research company determined that U.S. women actually purchase more gadgets than men).

Readers are supposed to finish The Knockoff Economy feeling optimistic, reassured that “…copying and creativity can co-exist.” However, this back-cover blurb from comedian Patton Oswalt seems to undermine their cause: “The Knockoff Economy is the most entertaining portent of doom I’ve read in a long time.” Back in chapter two, chef David Change insists, “There is nothing new under the sun,” reiterating the common belief that it’s all been done and said and painted and built and learned. Even if it’s true, that’s not the way to motivate future innovators.

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Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure