February 14, 2010

Literary sampling creates German bestseller

A quite interesting story about plagiarism versus sampling in literature has unveiled itself in Germany over the last few weeks. My German might not be as good as it should but the journalists at the New York Times has helped me (and perhaps you) with the key elements of the story. Helene Hegemann a 17 year old writer and cultural wunderkind has obviously borrowed a bit too much from an earlier published book and forgot to tell anyone about it.

The publication last month of her novel about a 16-year-old exploring Berlin’s drug and club scene after the death of her mother, called “Axolotl Roadkill,” was heralded far and wide in German newspapers and magazines as a tremendous debut, particularly for such a young author. /…/

That is, until a blogger last week uncovered material in the novel taken from the less-well-known novel “Strobo,” by an author writing under the nom de plume Airen. In one case, an entire page was lifted with few changes.
From the New York Times.

Sampling and litterature
This could of course have been the end for this otherwise talented and promising German writer. Even though sampling by now more or less has been accepted in music industry, to use material from other writers has previously not been taken lightly.

The quite recent case with the Swedish writer Fredrik Colting using the character Holden Caulfield from J. D. Salingers’ book Catcher in the Rye is an illustrative example of how serious copyright and plagiarism is taken in the publishing business.

Mr. Salinger, who has not published any new work since 1965, has sued several times to protect his writing, including successful efforts to stop publication of some of his personal letters in a biography and to halt a staging of “Catcher” by a college theater company in San Francisco.
From the New York Times.

The interesting twist to the German story is that the author, Helene Hegemann, seems to come out on top after the initial discussion has settled. But it also raises interesting questions about copying and sources of inspiration as well as attribution; because the lack of attribution to her sources is one of the key discussions afterwards.

“I myself don’t feel it is stealing, because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me,” Hegemann told the daily Berliner Morgenpost.
From The Local.

The future
I think we in the future will see more and more of mixing and borrowing inspiration from different sources. Not only because “everything is already written” but also because the technology makes it possible in a totally different way than for instance in the 1980’s.

This might seem as a cliché, but I also believe that it is important that we really think through how we should face this new era of easy access. Technology is developing and that is something we cannot hinder. I am quite convinced that we should not hinder the development either. It is therefore important to be prepared for the changes that are coming, both in our own mindset but also legislatively. I have no solution just yet, but I am quite convinced that we have much more to gain by adapting to the changing society that to try to keep some parts in a pre-computer-era state of mind.

Techdirt writes an interesting piece about the phenomenon and concludes:

In the same way that remixes and mashups often drive people to buy the original music, it seems like remixed/mashedup books can do the same. It may be a big cultural leap for those who think there is "a way things must be done," but it seems that the younger generation has other ideas.

But, and this might be where I eventually will end up personally, the fact that information is readily available and collaboration in the creative space can be both with and without the consent of all involved parties does not mean that it should be without rules to follow.

A first step in this is definitely to fully credit the sources used. Something which Helene Hegemann has had trouble with.

"I think there are good ethical grounds for giving sources for a book - and the fact that I neglected to do so reflects my thoughtlessness and my narcissism," Hegemann said in an interview with Die Welt, adding, "But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material - what matters is what they do with it.”
From Deutsche Welle.

Johan Orneblad
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[Via Svante Weyler in “Godmorgon, Världen!" Sveriges Radio P1.]

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