07 December 2014

A Mixed Bag

In the realm of teen music, nothing is sacred. It began with the DJ-as-artist movement. Once upon a time disc jockeys with an entertaining line of patter were fĂȘted: Wolfman Jack, Casey Kasem, and America’s television DJ, Dick Clark. Some might suggest that as consumer music became less creative, DJs became more so. They ruled their club kingdom and, for a few hours each night, they became stars.

FL Studio
FL Studio
DJs began to ‘remix’, then ‘scratch’, laying down alternate tracks, overlaying dance rhythms like dubstep, adding percussion, reverb, echo, sampling, hip-hop lyrics, and autotune. Some remixes became B-sides of the originals. Remixes were seldom improvements over the underlying works, but they proved popular.

Kids emulate their heroes. They download bootleg copies of FL-Studio, a powerful program to create music, but also remix beyond the recognizable. Confined to garages and high school dances, there isn’t anything overtly criminal, not counting the illegality of purloined programs and pirated music.

But kids learn one thing, to take someone else’s work and make it their own.

Helene Hegemann, 17
Bagged in Berlin

Imagine such activity in the literary world. Aspiring authors combine plots from Rob Lopresti and John Floyd, then set them in Stephen Ross’ New Zealand. They borrow a lingerie-challenged character from Fran Rizer and crib entire pages of humour from Melodie Campbell. Because they can’t grok the tradecraft details from Dixon Hill and RT Lawton, they copy them verbatim.

They call that work their own, no credit given. They win acclaim, they win awards, they win movie rights.

When caught and challenged, they not only claim everyone does it, they insist Rob, John, Stephen, Fran, Melodie, Dixon, and RT nobbled their ideas from others.

One of our readers pointed out this is happening in Germany and, instead of being punished, the young authoress is being honored. Seventeen-year-old Helene Hegemann filched phrases and pages from others including passages from the novel Strobo by pseudonymous author ‘Airen’. Helene says everybody does it, that’s what kids do these days. She calls it ‘mixing’, not plagiarism. She has her defenders, including the finalists committee for the $20,000 prize at the Leipzig Book Fair.

Sandbagged by Bitches

Readers might remember famed romance writer Cassie Edwards, author of a hundred novels which resulted in ten million copies sold. Ms Edwards, noted for her research, lifted paragraphs, passages, and poems from the non-fiction material of others and offered no attribution. Romance reviewers ‘Smart Bitches’ ripped her throat out, ruining an otherwise envious career.

Defenders of new age appropriation point out Cassie Edwards was a different generation, that those were the dark ages of six years ago.

Returning to the music comparison, I suppose one might argue the anthem America the Beautiful was the result of a remix. A third party combined the poetry of Katharine Lee Bates with the melody separately composed by Samuel A. Ward and arrived at a composition greater than the sum of its parts. The difference is that the ‘remixer’ neither claimed credit for the work nor pretended to wield a talent greater than the original authors.

Bagging the Question

If there was one statement that caused me to entirely lose respect and sympathy for Helene Hegemann, it was this jaw-dropping, in-your-face sentence: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.

I kept returning to her words, trying to forgive by asking what the hell does she know at seventeen? Other than residing in a moral vacuum, of course. I take pride in creativity and originality and my colleagues do as well, chosen for those very qualities.

But this is my unoriginal opinion. What is yours?


  1. Leigh, there were whispers that this would happen in the last rounds of term papers I graded as a secondary teacher. Call it what it is -- plagiarism, but we seem to have a new generation to whom cheating of any kind is okay so long as they win in the end. When they get caught, they think they can talk their way out of it. The defense that it happens/happened in music is just another way of saying, "But, Mom, everyone else is doing it."

  2. Fran, I taught college-level basic economics to 20-year-olds, mostly Europeans. The level of cheating was disheartening. At the time, I thought it had something to do with their privileged upper-middle class upbringing. Now I think I wasn't watching what was taking place in US schools.

  3. Do you remember the teacher a few years back who was fired for failing the students who'd plagiarized their papers? She had proof they came directly off the Internet, but their parents raised such a stink that she was dismissed. It's not just the kids.

  4. Fran, I believe I do. I think there was a spate of dismissals at that time, wasn't there?

    The school felt some pressure from well-heeled parents who'd sent their progeny to the US to get them out of their hair. I exposed the cheating in my class by designing tests with three different answer sheets. A few students got scores in single digits because of copying from their neighbor instead of trusting their knowledge. The school was not happy I'd done that.

  5. I'm practicing my craft. I haven't been published yet, but I'm getting closer. But what an insult for that child to be considered for an award after cheating her way to the top. If she wins, I feel it's a major setback not just for literature, but for the morality of humanity as a whole.

  6. Leigh, you say it so well. I am really hoping that this cheater Helene is an exception. And I have to wonder: how will she respond when another - younger - writer steals entire chapters of her work someday? And wins awards for it?

  7. Anon, you captured the story in just a few sentences, which is the essence of a good writer. And it would be a major setback for the craft and the perception by the public of our work.

    Melodie, that would be ironic if her work was copied! I bet lawyers would spring out of the woodwork.

  8. Perhaps if Helene wins that $20,000 prize, it will be enough to inspire some lean and hungry young lawyer to take on one of those plagiarized authors as client for a large percentage of the prize. Sooner or later, I would also think there are author organizations out there which would sue to protect their members, assuming one of their members was the plagiarized author in order to give them legal standing for the case.

  9. Interesting piece, Leigh. I may blog about this next year.

    As a librarian at a university I spend a lot of time helping students with this stuff and I can tell you a lot of them are terrified that they will get in trouble for unintentionally plagiarizing - in other words they are afraid they don't understand the rules.

    The rules change over time and depending on the circumstance, but this is hardly new stuff. When Faulkner received the Nobel Prize his speech included the phrase "the last ding-dong of doom." He didn't credit Rex Stout for it and no one demanded he give back the prize.

    I'm not trying to excuse the woman or her defenders. Someone needs to draw the lines but it is the nature of artists to cross them.

    And if you think it's just the young people, take a look at this: tinyurl.com/lmb9232

  10. A thought-provoking post. In addition to the music parallels, some conclusions from a very good (non-fiction) book, The Shallows by Nicolas Carr, might apply.

    Carr posits critical and creative thinking abilities have been degraded by internet habits. (Go figure!) In essence, learning, using, and sharing bits of often shallow, near anonymous, typically free information changes how we think about and regard information itself. It’s free, voluminous, easy to cut and paste, you can share it, re-tweet it, re-blog it, and so forth, right?

    Plagiarism predates widespread internet reliance by centuries, of course. But perhaps our changing relationship with written content shortens the step to more widespread “sampling” of it?

  11. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” That's a 17 year old for you... But once I read the words "[a] novel about a 16-year-old exploring Berlin’s drug and club scene after the death of her mother, called “Axolotl Roadkill,” I understood entirely why the critics are raving: because 16 year olds drinking, drugging and sexing it up are always going to be a best seller, and even if they are plagiarizing until the cows come home, IT WILL MAKE MONEY. And that is the name of the game.

  12. Great article Leigh. However, stealing someone else's ideas and claiming them for your own is not just a literary problem. I've seen first hand in the corporate world where managers steal a team member's idea, one colleague steals another's idea and so on. In fact you might remember the movie "Working Girl" (a title I find offensive by the way) was based on the idea that a really good idea was stolen and presented by someone else as their own. There are designer clothing and other items that are knock offs everywhere. I don't think we can blame the internet for this problem. The internet only exaggerated an already existing problem. I can only hope that Karma exists and in the meantime I know the rules that I live by don't include taking from someone else without proper accreditation.

  13. Nice piece, Leigh! :) This isn't the Information Age, it's the Era of Cut 'n Paste . Electronic distribution of content has created a whole new nightmare for us people who create stuff.

  14. Good point, RT. I’m not a fan of litigation, but it might provide a reality check.

    Rob, I saw that article about the professor. I look forward to your article in February.

    I would have said Faulkner was paying tribute rather than stealing… unless he copped paragraphs. The film Interstellar several times quoted Dylan Thomas (“Go gentle into the good night…”) and gave credit, but I think that’s entirely different from lifting passages and in particular not crediting.

    I trust teens understand I’m not so much picking on them (as illustrated by Cassie Edwards who took from out-of-copyright and public domain works), but pointing out they’re being raised with different attitudes… which goes back to the parents, doesn’t it?

  15. Peter, you pose an intriguing take on the situation. I’ve found myself wondering about facebook, which is largely build around disseminating quotes, quips, and clips that belong to other people. facebook can throw up its hexadecimal hands and say “Hey, we’re only a conduit, blame the person who posted it.” I actually saw a post where someone asked how they can publicly share an item but now allow others to share it. I haven’t come across a way anyone can do that.

    Eve, part of that had crossed my mind, although you’ve gone a couple of steps further. I somethings think that was the point of Catcher in the Rye. I’m not a person who thinks a teen can’t offer something new or even deep, but it’s going to be a stretch believing in this entry.

  16. Darlene, you’re right, that ultimately it comes down to our own code of conduct. I haven’t seen Working Girl, but I can bear witness to the office types who snatch ideas as readily as someone else’s lunch in the fridge.

    I knew a couple in New York’s fashion industry who ran a small firm whose entire business was based on copying the latest fashion from Europe and creating knockoffs. Every year they’d travel to Paris and Rome to get the latest runway designs and bring them home to reproduce.

    Stephen, I sometimes expand upon (or twist) a quote of H.L. Menchen that roughly says data is not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. Cut’n’paste only makes this worse. Now it seems we need to rephrase that as “data is not content…”

  17. Leigh, about the fashion business, I highly recommend a book that came out in the 1970s, called How's Business? Don't Ask! by Leonard S. Bernstein. Not the composer, he owned an underwear company. He talks about all the tricks of the trade, such as what you describe, and the dreaded "shrinking the marker," which is why women's clothes don't fit. Hilarious, although Terri says you need to read it with a Jewish accent for the full affect.

  18. The victim of a recent burglary, I find this literary shop-lifting as offensive as the theft of my hard-earned possessions.

    Moral compasses need recalibrating before we totally lose our way.

  19. Rob, sounds great. My aunt was an art professor at FIT, so through her contacts, I got a peek into that very different world.

    Yiddish accent I can do… barely. I'll doff my goyisch cowboy hat and don my yarmulke. Oy! Thanks, Rob and Terri.

  20. ABA, I'm sorry to hear that. You've undoubtedly had it worse. I've heard home invasions and house break-ins compared to rape of one's home, that it violates one's sense of self, security, and safety. That's far more serious than mere money. So sorry, ABA.

  21. Ideas are a 'dime-a-dozen' as they say.
    Ideas worked over and described in such particular detail that they are identifiable with a particular person is their unique signature.

    Perhaps it began with Warhol's silkscreening Monroe and Campbell's soup. Images already created but he recreated them became his own unique signature. Perhaps that is Hegemann's defense.

    Nevertheless, though she put out some effort in her cut & paste work, I don't think her name will remain on people's minds nor her work on their bookshelves for very long. Fame is fleeting.

    She is not a writer nor an author. She is only a compiler. (no pun intended for those involved in programming)

  22. Bradley, good points. And I might add that with compilers (the computer kind) you can at least write creatively.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>