"Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author's phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea."
So wrote Guy Debord, prominent member of the Situationist International and major instigator of the infamous Paris uprisings of May '68. In his most famous text The Society of the Spectacle, Debord articulates the belief that free trade of thoughts and ideas is not only acceptable, but necessary for the intellectual advancement of culture. He did not simply advocate plagiarism as a means of reference, but as an active way to critically engage and subvert dominant media images -- what he and his fellow Situationists referred to as 'détournement.' Put simply, détournement is the appropriation of these prevailing images for meanings in opposition to their original intent -- a strategy that has influenced generations of activists, academics, and artists. So when the estate of Guy Debord recently sent a 'cease and desist' letter to a group of American artists for copyright infringement, people familiar with Debord's oeuvre were rightly shocked. Beyond the obvious irony of the situation, this particular case has raised questions about the complexities of copyright, monetary compensation and the historical legacy of our anti-establishment icons.
The recipients of this letter were Radical Software Group (RSG), a loosely affiliated group of artists and programmers who recently developed a multi-player online game called Kriegspiel based upon Debord's second best known work, Le Jeu de la Guerre (The Game of War). The Game of War is a military-themed board game with an accompanying text that Debord spent decades of his life working on. With roots in the long history of chess-based military strategy games known as kriegspiels, Debord was particularly influenced by the Prussian military general and strategist Carl von Clausewitz, a general whose approach to militarism was informed and shaped by broad philosophical and cultural forces-strategies akin to Debord's own revolutionary theories. The game itself consists of a board of twenty by twenty-five squares divided into Northern and Southern territories with pre-determined obstacles (such as a mountain range, mountain pass, two arsenals, and three fortresses). Game pieces include cavalry, infantry and cannons that can be moved up to five spaces per game, with the resulting play somewhat akin to a chess/RISK hybrid. When The Game of War was first produced in a limited edition in 1978, Debord expressed great confidence in its potential, writing in his text Panegyric, "It might be the only thing in all my work-- I'm afraid to admit -- that one might dare say has some value."
Alexander Galloway, a key member of RSG, had known about the game for many years as a result of his academic and artistic engagement in gaming and critical theory. For Kriegspiel, he and his RSG collaborators painstakingly translated the rules of Debord's original game into what Galloway refers to as "a massively two-player online game" which can be downloaded and played locally or over a network. According to Galloway it is "an attempt to reinterpret Debord's ideas in the contemporary landscape, while maintaining a fidelity to his original thinking." In this sense, the artists were not attempting a Situationist-style 'détournement,' but something more akin to an homage to his highly influential thinking. Given Debord's widely known stance on issues of copyright and intellectual property, the artists saw no reason to think there would be any resistance to this treatment of Debord's work, and, as such, saw no reason to seek permission from his estate. Unfortunately, Debord's widow and collaborator, Alice Becker-Ho seems to have felt differently, and issued 'cease and desist' letters to the artists and a number of supporting institutions, citing "exploitation of the exclusive rights belonging to Mrs DEBORD and, furthermore, is a version far removed from the intentions of the creator of the game."
Over the past month, this situation has received considerable attention in the blogosphere and print , and most of this commentary has focused on the extreme irony of Debord's iconic name involved in a copyright infringement case. For a man who attributed many of his texts with "All texts published in Situationist International may be freely reproduced, translated and edited, even without crediting the original source," it appears an outrageous betrayal of his revolutionary ideals. But even by Debord's own words, his intent for The Game of War seems very different from that of his Situationist writing. With his patron and publisher Gérard Lebovici he formed "The Society of Strategic and Historical Games" as a means to commercially produce and publish the game in 1978. Lebovici, a colorful French media mogul who supported the careers of people like Gerard Depardieu, Jean Paul Belmondo and Francois Truffaut, invested heavily in Debord's career. He funded many of Debord's films and published several of his books through Éditions Champ Libre (later Éditions Gérard Lebovici). The game and accompanying book by Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho were first published in 1978, and have been in print off and on since, (RSG's Kriegspiel page provides a detailed account of all versions of the game), with the most recent edition being the 2007 English translation by Atlas. A Bookforum review of the Atlas volume quotes Debord as saying, in regards to the Éditions' investment in the game, "the best solution I can see would obviously be to sell the Kriegspiel...If it is, in business terms, an equivalent of 'Monopoly,' we won't lack means to pay the Éditions' debts unflinchingly." By comparing his game of military strategy to one of the most ubiquitous and blatantly capitalistic board games of all time, it seems clear that, not only did Debord have a radically different relationship with this project than his Situationist texts, but also that he had high hopes for its commercial (re: financial) success. Ironically, The Game of War did not fly off the shelves as hoped and was known by only a small group of Situationist and game enthusiasts until this recent controversy.
If one views Debord through the lens of a frustrated commercial game designer, rather than a Marxist revolutionary, the litigious response of Alice Becker-Ho seems slightly less surprising. While a new generation of artists and theorists have grown accustomed to the inevitability of appropriation, remixing and versioning, an earlier generation, whose work blazed trails for development in copyright freedoms, networking and reproducibility, still often remain attached to a more traditional notion of authorship, ownership, distribution and compensation. Lori Zippay, Executive Director of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), a preeminent institution for the distribution of single-channel artist videotapes from the 1960s to the present, has noticed a considerable generation gap in regards to online access, exhibition, attribution, and copyright, but sees it closing quite quickly. EAI has recently embarked on a large-scale digitization project to put every video in their collection online. When asked about contacting artists for permission to make their works available so openly, Zippay replied, "I admit that I was somewhat concerned about how artists of the pioneering generation might react; I anticipated that (for sound, complex historical reasons) many would greet the project with caution or outright disapproval." During this process, Zippay found instead that, "to my surprise and delight, the first-generation of video artists were overwhelmingly enthusiastic and supportive...They embraced the potential for digital access while insisting on the integrity of their artworks, which for me is a perfect equation." Fearing their work would be seen out of context, at low quality, or for someone else's financial gain, many of these first generation video artists have been assuaged by a more robust understanding of how online access can open up works of art to wider audiences, and likewise, open up new streams for exhibition and revenue. In the same vein, by translating Debord's The Game of War into a new platform, RSG and the Kriegspiel have brought considerable attention to Debord and could arguably boost future sales of the original.
Repeated attempts to contact Debord's estate went unanswered, and while the Kriegspiel remains online, RSG have not received further calls for its removal. Debord's feelings about appropriation -- to "erase a false idea, and replace it with the right idea" -- were a means to subvert authority. RSG, while reverent to Debord's ideology they are not, in this instance, embodying it. Not trying to erase or replace, they are endeavoring to bring a new audience and build upon Debord's vision. By so doing, their appropriative stance takes after another, albeit unlikely, revolutionary thinker. In an oft quoted letter, American revolutionary Thomas Jefferson spoke presciently about the importance of shielding 'ideas' from copyright legislation, writing "that ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature...and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation."