Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion

PART ONE

A seventeen-year-old German woman named Hegeman recently published a novel called Axolotl Roadkill amidst a flurry of publicity. People promptly pointed out that many passages in it were plagiarised from another fairly recent novel, Strobo, whose author uses the pen name Airen. Nevertheless, the book was announced as a finalist for the $20,000 prize of the Leipzig Book Fair.

If Airen had turned out to be Helene Hegeman, this story would be funny, but no such luck. Volker Weidermann, a member of the prize jury and a book critic for the Frankfurter Allgemeine, not only admits that the jury knew about the plagiarism when they nominated the book, but that he considers plagiarism to be “part of the concept of the book.” As for Hegeman, she allows as how she could have said thank you or something to the other author, but she clearly feels that making a fuss about stealing text is just incredibly twentieth-century. In a statement released by her publisher, she said “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

I don’t know what Airen has said about it, but it may be hunkydory with him, since he had previously written in his blog that “Berlin is here to mix everything with everything” — a line duly put into the mouth of a character in Hegeman’s book.

The New York Times report on this story was sent me by my friend Robin Morgan, who was having a bit of déjà vu. Her book The Demon Lover was plagiarised some years ago by a young woman whose novel won first prize from an Australian literary committee. Though it was proved that she had stolen not only from The Demon Lover but also, Robin says, “large chunks of Graham Green,” the prize committee refused to dethrone her, asserting that “extensive sampling and mixing” is a form of “hommage.” It evidently didn’t seem odd to them to do homage without saying who you’re doing homage to. The publisher, however, pulled the book out of publication.

The Times article refers to “artists that sample freely and thereby breathe creativity into old forms,” and to a literary generation “that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new.”

I’m interested that both the Times article and the Australian prize-givers use the terms “sampling” and “mixing,” which come from the world of recorded music. These words have no background in literature. In fact I don’t know anything in writing they could refer to except such dreary minor forms as the “cento,” a poem made of lines from other poems.

Of course, in one sense, writers take from one another all the time. Learning a craft or art is in large part learning to use and recombine the forms, techniques, and ideas of other artists. But (except occasionally in a painter’s training) that doesn’t mean literal copying. In the case of writing, it doesn’t mean quoting, and has little if anything in common with sampling and mixing recorded music. Writers don’t take little bits of each other’s work and put them in the blender and come out with a brave new smoothie. Writers don’t knowingly use another writer’s sentence at all, except in quotation marks, citing the author’s name. Literature doesn’t work like music. The rules are different, the content is different. A writer that “mixes” and “matches” somebody else’s copied sentences “creates” something highly derivative, but “new” only in a very limited sense. In what way can mere theft “breathe creativity into old forms,” and how can “originality” or “authenticity” or be invoked to justify the result? Writers who copy sentences and present them as their own work have done nothing but what the fifth-grader who copies from the next-desk exam paper does: They’ve cheated.

Since it’s so easy to copy information from the Internet, teachers from grade school through college now must endlessly repeat explanations of why copying text is not only cheating, but entirely pointless, since the information has merely been repeated, not learned; the student has in fact said nothing, original, authentic, or otherwise.

The Times and the prize-givers in Australia appear not to have heard these explanations, or have listened only to the deconstructionists denying the existence of authors, or the choruses on the Internet hopefully chanting the mantra “Information wants to be free.”

Wasn’t there was a second half of Stewart Brand’s sentence, something like “information also wants to get paid”? Gotta watch it with those mantras.

In any case, if we’re talking about literature, we aren’t talking about information.

The Odyssey is not information. Neither is Axolotl Roadkill. They’re art. Good art, bad art, it don’t make no nevermind.

We have created immense confusion by calling whatever appears on the Internet “information.”

Information is essentally content. Content does not, or should not, belong to anybody. It may take Einstein to think it up in the first place, this little equation, this bit of information, but once he’s published it, once you’ve learned it, it’s yours. And you can do whatever you like with it. No question about that.

This lack of ownership is of course anathema to capitalism. The corporations would like to keep all their scientific and techological information secret forever. An individual’s right to profit from discovery of information is more defensible; a chemical formula for making a useful or salable substance, for instance, is information of immediate money value, and it doesn’t seem unfair for it to be kept secret for a while so the originator can profit from it. Inventors can patent an invention (on the same principle as copyright). But information in the sense of knowledge rightly belongs to anyone who will learn it. You cannot patent the knowledge of how to perform a mastectomy. You cannot copyright a mathematical equation.

If you suppress information so that only you can profit from it, it’s very likely to get away from you. And it’s extremely difficult to keep information secret. As all governments know, the more you classify, the greater the leakage. As a general rule, the best thing to do with information is release it, set it free. It is in this sense that information really does want to be free.

Content flourishes when it is allowed to be common knowledge, or at least available knowledge.

But art is not essentially content. Art is essentially form. Art is object, not subject.

You learn a subject. Surgery, or math. History, or philosophy.

You don’t learn an object.

You can study it, sure. You can observe an object, you can look at it, listen to it, read it. You can learn how it was made. You can buy it, or ask permission to borrow it or use it or copy it. You can steal it.

And these days, if the art object is an object made of words — a poem, a novel — and you want to steal it, you refer to it as “information.”

And that’s supposed to legitimise the thievery. To glamorise it, even. To postmodernise it. To make it authentic

(Continued in Part Two)


Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Visit her Book View Cafe bookshelf.

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Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion — 20 Comments

  1. I respect remixing as a creative form in its own right — I’ve heard some brilliant mixes — but I think that as you say, the equivalent in fiction isn’t the sentences. It’s the story components, the settings and characters and plot. When Jane Yolen retells “Sleeping Beauty” in the context of the Holocaust, that’s a remix. When Akira Kurosawa does King Lear in feudal Japan, that’s a remix. When Galen Beckett writes a novel that sequentially recaps three classics of English literature in a setting that’s like England plus magic plus a strange diurnal cycle that makes me think of nothing so much as the seasons in George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, that’s a remix, too.

    I also tend to think of fanfiction this way. I read one once, “The Game of the Gods,” that used material from the Silmarillion to create a critical typology of Mary Sues — including the anime catgirl Mary Sue, the Harry Potter crossover Mary Sue, etc. Hilarious and brilliant. Saw another one recently, don’t remember the name of it, where they used the vengeance demon Anyanka from Buffy to explain the different (and contradictory) continuities of Superman. (Lois Lane kept wishing him out of existence.) This is the sort of thing where I personally — even speaking as a writer, with one eye toward my own work — don’t have a problem with the infringement of copyright. Those are transformative works as much as a parody is, and they show what kind of art can result when you run wildly disparate things against one another at high speeds.

    Lifting the prose, though? I’m not sure where I draw the line between “really good turn of phrase that sticks in my head” and wholesale plagiarism. Probably somewhere in the vicinity of the point at which the plagiarizer has the book open on the desk in front of them as they type. You could maybe create an interesting kind of slam poetry with strangely juxtaposed quotes from works of literature, but if you’re taking large chunks of prose, I stop seeing the contribution of an original vision that’s so apparent in the examples I named above.

    And I sure as hell don’t buy the notion that there’s no such thing as originality. (Especially since my anthropological brain went on red alert when it was followed by “just authenticity” — yeah, because that’s such an an unproblematic concept.) If you define originality as sheer novelty, the way some people do, then yeah; there’s very little that’s new under the sun. But I see it as something more subtle than that, even if I can’t put that “something” into words.

    Sorry to ramble so much, but this is a topic fairly dear to my heart. 🙂

  2. As far as I know, the music business is very ferocious in protection of content, though I’m not from the business or knee-deep in the DJ world so I could definitely be mistaken. Decades of battles over copyright have pretty much defined the line between legal and illegal sampling in most countries, but then, when money is involved… What’s more important I think is the community itself defining their code of conduct over the years, so that “musical collage” now has evolved from simply copy-and-paste to another great tool in the artist’s box.

    But anyways, what I feel is at the crux of the problem is those people defending their oopsies by brandishing sacred names taken from rituals from an ancient and alien religion without thought. Don’t they know that’s how we end up with demons devouring the earth?

    If I were to make a song, surrounding a hardly altered 1 minute sample from a Madonna song, I’d be hard pressed to find anyone agreeing with me that I’m just “sampling”. Remixing, maybe. But then, remixing (and making money from the remix, because that’s what happened in the Axolotl Roadkill/Strobo case) is a no-no without at least Madonna’s consent. And, lest we forget, even Madonna has to ask for the right to use samples (see Madonna ‘begged’ Abba for sample).

    Money is a great motivator, so I would think it’s a no-brainer for the Axolotl Roadkill publisher what to do: pull the book. Except, money is a great motivator, and the whole discussion surrounding Axolotl Roadkill/Strobo is free advertising. Hmm, would the cost of a plagiarism lawsuit with damages paid to Strobo weigh up to the winnings of keeping Axolotl Roadkill in print? Or would both publishers simply smile at each other with a knowing nod, since both titles get all this free advertisement? Do publishers really care when an author feels violated in his rights, or do they tell him to suck it up since they’re selling copy like never before? See, it’s the writing community itself that has to make up the rules because I’m not sure we can trust the suits.

    Back to the rituals, though. For me, sampling in writing would be something along the lines of having a minor character’s name refer to someone else’s main character, not for the sake of name dropping or subtly indicating my admiration for the author, but to draw some of that other novel’s atmosphere in, use it to set the reader on the right or wrong foot about the character, if I’m making any sense here. After all, authors are not just word ejecting machines, and a novel is not simply a bunch of word in some chosen order. A character is more than just the initial description/presentation to the reader, and in using a name in reference to said character you sort of loan a bit of essence to push certain buttons with your public.

    As for remixing, you can end up with something that looks almost the same as the original up to something completely unrecognisable. Mark Charan Newton put up a Remix Project on his blog some time ago; as he says: “C. Miéville spawned this concept in the Pan Macmillan cottage whilst at the SFX Weekender”, I assume in the wake of that same New York Times article. So far, only two “remixes” have been posted, but I hope more will follow. I feel it’s certainly a good exercise to see how far we as a community can take this idea.

  3. Wow, that’s just…

    I’m on board completely with what Marie said above. Transformative != plagiarism – that said, transformative also does not equal wholesale copying of chunks of the original work. It’s exactly that: a transformation, a true remix wherein the spirit and anima of the work is taken, reformed and a new work ensues.

    I’m not seeing the blurred line in what this German girl did. To me, the line is extremely clear. I’m all for transformative works from my own books, too–as long as that one line is drawn: do not copy my exact text. That, friends, is theft. The other: homage & creativity.

    Who are these judges and why do they think that way? Is this truly how new authors/artists conceive of their craft? I can’t believe that it’s widespread, even amongst young authors. I know several in their mid-twenties and not a one of them fall into this mindset. Perhaps I’m too far removed from that age range and I’ve only encountered those that think as I do.

    I’d love to know.

  4. I’m part of the Hegeman generation that mixes and vamps different forms of media. A mash-up of a few songs can be a really interesting expression that when done correctly draws the listeners attention to certain aspects of those songs otherwise unnoticed. I, for example, never actually recognized that I liked the lyrics in one of Korn’s songs until it was brought down to a new level in a mash-up–mixed with The Cure actually. Here’s the example if you want to check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNyhLT_XOgQ

    So to use the object v. subject example, it’s kind of like creating a new object by melding pre-existing objects. The final product can be a fantastic expression of the artist’s unique view of art that already exists.

    Do I think that it’s possible to create something new and interesting from a mash-up of literature? I really do. But it’s fairly obvious that this wasn’t Hegeman’s sole intention. If what she wanted to do was create something unique that brought to light the things she’d learned from the authors and bloggers she’d been reading, she would have given credit to them. Not only that, she would have gotten permission from them. When you find mashed-up music the original songs are always given credit. If they weren’t, it would be plagiarism–and honestly, no one is making money off those except for Google via YouTube (sorry Ms. Le Guin). What she really wanted was fame and fortune. Big surprise coming from a generation motivated by plastic-deep Hollywood ideals. No, her claims to me ring of a little girl with big dreams desperately trying to cling to her nascent career as a writer. Meanwhile, the exploitation of said girl is making her publishers a bundle.

  5. I must be just a few years too old to be part of ‘the Hegeman generation’. If that sort of chicanery is what being part of it means, then thank gosh I’m not!

  6. Being only a few years older than Hegeman, I can say that she does not speak for her entire generation. There is nothing about plagiarism that is all right in this context. This is not a mash-up. This is not a fully cited and attributed quote.

    This is “Oooh, I wish I wrote that… so I’ll tell everyone I did!” To the tune of $20,000 dollars.

    Now, I write fanfiction. But I don’t tell people that I created the characters I write about, nor do I make any kind of money off of it. I find it very disappointing and rather worrying that this girl is being nominated for an award with the full knowledge that she plagiarized. If I copied several passages from a book, pasted them into the “context” of an essay, did not cite them as being the work of others, and submitted that essay to my college, I would certainly fail the assignment and would probably be expelled. Why should literature be any different?

  7. To condense my above comment:

    I definitely did not claim that she represents our generation and I also don’t consider what she did a mash-up. And, I think that both her and her publisher need to stop making money off of their obvious threat.

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  9. Helene Hegemann was pretty much a manufactured sensation/scandal from the start, supposed to ride on the “young woman writes about sex” wave set off by Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands. And the German media only too gleefully jumped on her, first as the new literary smash sensation and then as a plagiarist. And what she did is clearly plagiarism and a pretty blatant case at that. If you look at side by side comparisons between Axolotl Roadkill and Strobo, you’ll see that Hegemann has not only lifted dialogue but also in one case a very unusual dialogue tag.

    I have no idea what’s going on in the minds of the Leipzig Buchpreis jury (which is one the top three prestigious literary awards in the country), but they have made odd nomination decisions before. One year, they nominated a novel written in 1972 by an author who had been dead twenty years. Okay, so the novel had been banned from publication in East Germany and only appeared more than thirty years later. But the prize is intended for the best new book and a book originally written in 1972 is not new.

    As a highschool and college teacher, what annoys me most is Hegemann’s cavalier dismissal of the plagiarism accusations as “remixing” and the way that the media accepted that explanation and did not call her on it. If my students do what Hegemann did – lift text without attribution – they’ll get a failing grade and probably worse. But cases like Hegemann’s will make it only more difficult to tell our students that plagiarism is wrong.

  10. I’m too old to view this discussion with anything other than upset. I don’t “appreciate” mash-ups or re-mixing either (except for the occasional captioned Hitler in the bunker rant); certainly it’s me, but when I hear re-mixed music, all I hear are the various “stolen” snippets – not some new, transformative expressionism.

    Every time this kind of discussion comes (the “new” arts – whether they are legit, etc., etc.) I am reminded of an SF novel/story, the title of which escapes me. A visitor to a future, advanced society is being given a tour and, upon exposure to the arts, has it explained to him that there are artists of the ‘first’ order, who originate (and who are held in high regard, etc., etc) and ‘second’ order artists who merely copy and repeat – albeit to a wider audience – what the first order artists have done. Second order artists are poorly paid, not given much respect and are a dime a dozen.
    Maybe we need some system like that for our “new” arts.

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  12. There is a bit of flawed logic here, I think. Ms. Le Guin, you have laid out the difference, in your opinion, between ‘information’ and ‘content’ very plainly. By its literal definition, what Hegemann did seems to be plagiarism. However, what if we use the ‘spirit’ of plagiarism or its connotation to determine what is going on? Obviously reading both Strobo and Axolotl Roadkill would be a prerequisite to making a final judgement, but from the description, it appears as if it really isn’t true plagiarism.

    What Hegemann has done is unheard of, for the most part, in the literary world. Le Guin is correct to say that “mixing” or “sampling” is simply not done, as a point of principle. However, it seems that the culture Hegemann identifies with does not bound itself with such principles.

    If the largest chunk used was a single page (as reported in the NY Times) and even that one page was at least slightly altered, then it is not as if Hegemann was short on chapters so she grabbed a few from Strobo and changed the names. She seems to really be exhibiting the literary version of ‘sampling.’ In music, sampling is literally using the exact recording of another artist, not just the ideas they represented. You use a short ‘clip’ of another work, loop it, change its style, or change its context. Axolotl Roadkill may be attempting to do that last one.

    So, while Hegemann did, literally, use exact text in her book that was written by another author, it may not be ‘plagiarism’ in its true nature or by connotation. Hegemann did not ‘lift’ an essay and put her name at the top, nor did she just change the names in Strobo and submit it as her own. She created an original work and included in it passages from someone else. This may be troublesome, but it is much more complex than “she stole it!”

    From your article and the news articles about the situation, it appears as if the borrowed passages make up a very small portion of the book. This reminds me of something many writers do on purpose, which is to emulate other writers they admire. Often, writers will read works by authors they want to emulate just before writing. This sets up a very practical form of progress and is the conceptual equivalent of ‘sampling.’ A writer gets in the ‘mood’ of another writer but offers their unique perspective and pushes that mood to a new place.

    It appears as if Hegemann may have been doing something similar, albeit with the actual passages that she admired. So, to answer the questions of “how could respected literary judges think this is okay?”; it is because the homage was paid by using the precise passage Hegemann wanted to emulate. She appears to have used the same idea in a new setting, possibly to show some level of that idea permeating through different settings.

    Students read Shakespeare in school and are told how his work is still ‘relevant’ today. Numerous adaptations of Shakespeare illustrate how the story can ‘work’ in an entirely new setting, such as doing a 1970s-themed version of 12th Night. Such an adaptation presented as if it were the director’s original work would certainly be plagiarism, but using verbatim Shakespeare lines in a novel would not.

    Greanted, Shakespeare is both well-known and in the public domain, so it is a bit different. But the restrictions of copyright are most apparent to the younger generation. They are continually attacked for their culture built around the idea of ‘sampling’ with accusations of copyright infringement, plagiarism, and even ‘theft.’ This generation feels that what they are doing is genuine and in good faith, but they have difficulty explaining why they think its okay, especially in the terms of another generation.

    I haven’t read the works in question, I am merely offering a possible explanation to those who are struggling to find one. It is possible that Hegemann just used the words because they sounded good and she couldn’t think of the right way to say it. But, did she scour several books to find the right passage? That would take considerably more work than just writing it on your own. I think it is plausible to assume that she revered Strobo on some level, and knew that the idea she wanted to express could be borrowed from there.

    In the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, the concept of the ‘right’ word is stressed. It is the idea that there is usually one, perfect word for an idea and a writer should search for that word and use it. This book is still taught to students in high-level English classes and echoes concepts that can be found elsewhere. If Hegemann’s perfect words were in Strobo, maybe she felt she shouldn’t alter them and that it was even better to show how they fit in a new context WITHOUT alteration?

    I think Hegemann’s greatest fault here is simply not attributing Strobo somewhere in her book. After all, it is difficult to pay homage to something without naming it. For well-known work like Shakespeare, an author can reasonably assume that readers will get it without naming the play, however it seems as if Strobo was not very well-known and so, Hegemann should definitely have noted the work in a dedication or some other form. Or, possibly, she thinks it IS well-known, i.e. her cultural group knows it well and so she thought her audience would know of Strobo.

    It is, nonetheless, oversimplification to dismiss Hegemann as a plagiarist or thief. Understanding her opinion and reasoning behind her actions is very important. I applaud Ms. Le Guin for trying to understand and for the intention to write a follow up after getting some feedback. This is a complex issue rooted in very different, possible incompatible views held by very separated generations. I hope this helps others understand some possible explanations for the, seemingly, inexplicable.

  13. “Bad artists copy. Great artists steal.” Pablo Picasso

    This seems to me to be the first and last word on the subject and I’m surprised it doesn’t seem to have come up in the conversation.

    Makes little difference to me as everything I write is in the public domain anyway.

  14. You know, I went and read the book in German and it’s bad. There’s not a whole lot going on, whether “sampled” or not. This young lady is only 17 years old, the same age as my daughter, and my daughter isn’t “uncool,” “untalented” or behind any curve. She’s bright enough to make her own choices and she wouldn’t stoop to copying someone else’s book (10 years older than she) and passing it off as her own work. She’s bright enough to know that she’s not cool, sexy or smart for bragging about partying with a bunch of lowlifes. It’s moronic to defend any of this as any type of “new art form.” It’s attention-seeking behavior, nothing more and nothing less. There’s going to be no great revolution in “sampling” literature, where suddenly the oldfashioned method of writing your own story, your own way is replaced by a new, cool sampling “culture.” Just as Nancy’s recent post discussed how the internet makes getting attention as a creative artist simultaneously easier and more difficult, the internet makes this type of “sampling” (otherwise known as “copying” and “plagiarism”) very easy, and “success” correspondingly more elusive. In the past, there probably have been a few derivative works that are credited to people who are not their true creators. Now? It will be discovered quickly, as with Cassie Edwards, the other various romance novelists, and with Helene Hegemann. The aggressive statements she’s made, likely encouraged in her by her father and the publisher – they just make her look like a child who’s been exploited, just as she tried to exploit the blogger’s work. And – the book is not successful, nor is it appreciated by the great majority of its readers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a literary version of Kanye West, only way less creative.

  15. “the Australian prize-givers use the terms “sampling” and “mixing,” which come from the world of recorded music. These words have no background in literature.”

  16. “the Australian prize-givers use the terms “sampling” and “mixing,” which come from the world of recorded music. These words have no background in literature.”

    Oh really?

    Then you should perhaps look into the literary careers of Roland, or Arthur, or how James Joyce remixes Homer with Giambattista Vico. Shakespeare borrowed Macbeth from several stories in Holinshead’s Chronicles, Hamlet was derived from Saxo Grammaticus and François de Belleforest, and King Lear was a remix of Holinshead and Spenser.

    Sorry for the errant prepost. Hit enter at the wrong point. But we should note that certain people don’t know what the hell they are talking about when they are possessed by an agenda.

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  19. “He who follows another follows nothing. He finds nothing; indeed he seeks nothing.”

    Montaigne

    Where do we draw the line? Le Guin posed, what is the difference between relaying information and stealing someone’s writing? “Information: facts provided or learned about something or someone. What is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.” Is it ok to write an exact sentence from a dictionary or encyclopedia without annotation? I doubt it. But who said it wasn’t right? Colleges? Christians? I think this is only going to stretch more with time –the idea of information and its freedom. If only money stands behind the “law of plagiarism” are we morally obligated to follow it? I think this is what the young are testing. This is the job of each ensuing generation, just as it is for a writer. Our job as writers is to continually be updating our view of literature. All this may make me seem like I am either a “sampler” myself or at least sympathetic to others who are. I myself am after the original idea, however, and find it tedious when others repeat the past to the point of dulling its poignancy. I also have no desire to risk my soul, by paining someone else. But I can see the logic in the debate. The fight of the next generation on past belief. What it really boils down to, is there are too many people in this world to create total control while maintaining the guise of total freedom. What it boils down to is ego –the reason we wish to possess both sides of the paradox.