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Whose line is it?
by Oliver Litten| Hamburg, Germany
Wednesday, 28 July 2010
tags: culture, europe, making sense, technology
One would have thought that plagiarism is a serious business. Certainly in literature. This spring (2010) we learn from the German press, the leading publisher Ullstein and the young female author of the book Axolotl Roadkill, that plagiarism may actually be an important emerging code. Especially in literature.
In this novel a 16-year old aspiring author, Helene Hegemann, writes about drugs & sex like a 38-year old nightlife junky and is instantly proclaimed the new literary star of Germany. Bestseller listing follows. Unfortunately, it turns out that most of her book is copied, often word for word, from many people, but most of it from the blogger Airens. No credits, no footnote references, unequivocally plagiarised.
This sort of thing (apparent literary fraud) used to mean the end of the road. But not for everybody. Not for Tony Blair in the notorious ’Dodgy Dossier’ on Weapons of Mass Destruction, for example, used in UK to persuade Parliament to support the invasion of Iraq. And now not for Helene Hegemann.
Helene Hegemann, reportedly, is not only unrepentant but apparently proud. She tells us we live in a word-of-mouth society where any content is everybody’s content. Therefore, content is about proliferation of information and re-shuffling of ideas, not about authorship or ownership.
Without diving into any unnecessary discussion around the ’art of intellectual referencing’ – either old (Shakespeare from numerous sources, Goethe copying Shakespeare, the phenomenon termed in German Weltmitschriften’, in English ’minutes of the world’) or more recent (music & song sampling, postmodern quotation as stock-in-trade of film, theatre and ad direction) – the fact appears to remain: Helene Hegemann copied large chunks of prose from an internet author and sold that content at a premium.
How does she get away with this?
• The book industry wants to sell books – free content on the internet does not help that endeavour (unless it can be repackaged and sold at a price).
• The Über-author is a learned concept in mainstream popular culture since ist inception with scratching in the 1980s.
• It’s one of the dilemmas of the web itself, where thoughtlessness is more than tolerated, sometimes celebrated – and perceived worthlessness can be the result.
Bottom line: Axolotl Roadkill looks like a case of daylight robbery. But then Helene Hegemann is not legal age, yet. So a moral license for pupils and students to download their school assignments from online sources? Or symptomatic of much larger economic issues around counterfeiting, piracy and intellectual property guaranteed to keep the lawyers busy, perplexing the world of information commerce and the new creative classes for at least a few years yet?
© Oliver Litten 2010