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Posner, Kouwe, and Hegemann: old-school vs. new-school attitudes about plagiarism

In the Wikipedia age, Gen Y writers are comfortable remixing content. But bright lines on plagiarism are essential.

By Sara Libby / February 19, 2010



Los Angeles

From allegations against “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling to demonstrable wrongdoing by reporters at The New York Times and The Daily Beast, February might as well be “National Plagiarism Month.” 

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It would thus be easy to view the case of 17-year-old German novelist Helene Hegemann as the exclamation point to this series of copying controversies. 

What separates Ms. Hegemann, though, isn’t simply her young age, but her response to allegations that she lifted almost an entire page from the little-known novel “Strobo.” 

Whereas New York Times reporter Zachery Kouwe and The Daily Beast’s Gerald Posner both professed shock at the accusations against them, admitted the seriousness of their offenses, and then resigned, Hegemann stands firmly by her techniques. 

She insists that by incorporating her own fresh take on others’ writings, she’s simply engaging in a new kind of Generation-Y literary remixing. 

“There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” Hegemann said in a statement. That view is hardly an outlier. Expect to see more of this approach to intellectual property as Millennials (sometimes called Generation Y) come to dominate culture. 

Indeed, some literary heavy hitters are seeing things the same way: Hegemann’s novel, “Axolotl Roadkill,” is up for a prestigious book award, and one of the jury members for the prize has said Hegemann’s methods don’t change his appraisal of its quality. “I believe it’s part of the concept of the book,” he told The New York Times.

Hegemann seems to be taking a cue from the underground DJs she chronicles in “Axolotl Roadkill” – who take pieces of various musicians’ songs and weave them together to create remixes or mash-ups that are, in turn, new pieces of art. 

Such “transformative” rethinking on existing works, some might argue, is even allowable in certain instances under US copyright law. 

This is precisely the defense mounted by artist Shepard Fairey, who created that iconic Obama “Hope” poster that is plastered across Millennial bedroom doors throughout the country. Is it any wonder that the young people who seized on that manipulated image, which many argue violated copyright law, have a similar outlook on their own works?

Hegemann is right that members of Gen Y, who’ve grown up accustomed to “crowd-sourced” technology, or online tools like Wikipedia, which encourage members to collaborate and build on one another’s expertise to form a more substantive description of a person or event, are bound to have a more flexible outlook on “borrowing” and the meaning of originality.

Problems will inevitably erupt, however, if journalists begin to embrace Hegemann’s concept of what she calls “intertextuality” without giving consideration to likely ramifications. Even given industry standards on plagiarism – The New York Times issued a stern rebuke of Mr. Kouwe, for example – Americans are generally wary of what they read in newspapers and online. If the news business were to even tentatively embrace taking other people’s words or ideas without proper attribution, the public’s trust would probably erode altogether.

I’ve typically come to the defense of Gen Y, to which I belong, when baby boomers and others accuse us of neglecting personal relationships in favor of social networking, or of growing so reliant on technology that we’re unable to operate an actual telephone book or read a paper map. I even make my living doing all kinds of Millennial-y things like blogging and writing for online publications. But I also went to a solid journalism school that instilled me with plenty of old-old-school values, many of which I don’t think are forgiving when it comes to lifting another person’s writing or insights without also admitting where you got them.

In the absence of any bright-line rule regarding taking from online sources, however, I do think it’s appropriate for news establishments to continue weeding out writers who borrow too heavily from others without acknowledging the original material. 

Mash-ups like “Auto-Tune the News” are hilarious and valuable for entertainment purposes, but “remixing the news” can be a dangerous practice that will only drag down the quality and reputation of the journalism profession. 

Sara Libby is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She blogs at http://trueslant.com/saralibby/, where an earlier version of this essay first appeared.

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