Cats Flushing Toilets, Bic for Her, and the Lolcat Bible: Collective Expression and Play Outside of IPR

Curator's Note

The original version of this video has in fact been taken down due to a copyright claim (see here), but is still easily available on YouTube from numerous re-uploads, including a glorious 10-hour version. One wonders: did “Sarah” request the take-down because the derivative work threatened her ability to generate profits through her transferring her exclusive rights of first sale to a publisher? Or, really, one doesn’t wonder that at all. The exclusive right of reproduction, guaranteed to authors and creators in order to encourage production of useful and creative works, seems like a poor tool to incentivize videos of peoples' cats flushing their toilets.

In forms of communication motivated by sharing, play, and interactive-collaborative entertainment, copyright not only does not serve as an incentive for production and progress, but instead seems able to serve primarily as an interruption or disincentive. And, it is worth saying, the triviality and silliness of this particular example should not cause us to underestimate the innovation and importance of these forms of creation.

Other examples of this kind of interactive-collaborative creation as play might include the crowd-written Lolcat Bible, the Amazon review-hijacking first made famous with the Three Wolf Moon T-Shirt and most recently famous in the case of Bic for Her, or the self-referential systems of theme and variation in memetic communication (quickmeme, lolcats, Condescending Wonka, Y U NO guy, etc.). In each of these cases, as in the process of sharing and remixing videos of cats flushing toilets, individual participation is motivated by interaction and recognition. There is no ownership interest, and the intention of each expression is conversational rather than authorial—their meaning inheres in the community of play, sharing, and interaction, rather than standing alone.

The political value of this sort of play is significant. Here we see a shift from the viewer as reader/consumer to viewer as contributor/participant—and a shift from market-integrated entertainment to entertainment disconnected from markets, or perhaps even hostile to markets. Collaborative and individual agency re-emerges and is reinforced by these practices and, as we know from Putnam’s Bowling Alone, having a good time joking around together is an excellent gateway to feeling like we belong together and have responsibilities to one another.


In a recent article in Wired magazine regarding kitteh memes, Gideon Lewis-Kraus informed readers that "when Google's secretive X Lab showed a string of 10 million YouTube images to a neural network of 16,000 computer processors for machine learning, the first thing the network did was invent the concept of a cat." The rest of the article evinces that the 'cat-industrial complex', as Kraus coins it, revolves around the concept of play that you elucidate in this post, one in which non-privatized collaboration serves to affirm the value of individual agency and reorient labor toward participatory innovation, whereby 'products' (improperly called) are made into contingent manifestations and modes of user relations. That said, my question is this: As someone who's studied 'cuteness', what is it about cats or kitteh memes that is so readily available for collaborative play? Are industrialized societies just drawn toward symbols of domestication (or pre-industrial innocence, or whatever) or is there something more axiological at work?


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