Monday, February 15, 2010

Author's 'sampling' gets her in trouble

Helene Hegemann, a 17-year-old German prodigy, is accused of plagiarizing portions of a lesser known novel for her latest book.

Her defense?

It’s not stealing. It’s sampling.

Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill is the story of a teenager who dives into the drug-and-club scene after her mother dies. Last week, the blogger Deef Pirmasens (I’d link, but it’s all in German anyhow) noted that portions of Axolotl had been copied from Strobo, a novel written by someone with the nom de plume Airen.

As much as an entire page was cribbed with minimal changes, according to news reports.

Hegemann has since admitted to taking from Strobo, but said she used the material in an original manner.

“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,” she said in an interview.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Hegemann didn’t acknowledge the Airen influence until after a blogger caught her. But it’s her first claim that merits closer examination. Is it still plagiarism if she uses borrowed material in an original manner?

Short answer: Maybe. Long answer: She cites “mixing” (or sampling, as it is often called in the music industry) as her intent. But artists have to credit the source material they sample or they risk law suits. (Ask Biz Markie or De La Soul. Hegemann might have more luck if she takes the 2-Live-Crew route and claims her work is parody.)

Obviously, German copyright law differs from the United States, so I won’t assume that I know how this will play out. With that having been said, everybody is the accumulation of their influences. Some of us wear our influences more obviously than others. But, no matter what, we need to acknowledge these influences, especially if we are copying portions of them verbatim.

Hegemann got it right when she said, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” (The quote comes from a statement issued by her publisher.) But part of authenticity is honesty; and, in the name of honesty, she should have credited Airen before a blogger caught her.

Quick note: The report of Kirkus’s death was exaggerated. Herbert Simon, mall mogul and owner of the Indiana Pacers, has purchased the publication. He doesn’t seem to plan a lot of changes except he intends to increase their digital offerings.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Cheryl, nice to see you on the blog. Never mention A Walk to Remember again, and we can remain friends.

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