The new mixologists

February 17, 2010 by · 13 Comments 

You may not have heard of Helene Hegemann, but the 17-year-old German writer is at the centre of a brewing storm around the subjects of copyright and the nature of authorship in the Internet age. Hegemann is the author of a book titled Axolotl Roadkill, which has become a bestseller in her native country and was recently nominated for the fiction prize at the Leipzig Book Fair. What makes this book noteworthy is that it apparently contains passages – including one that allegedly runs an entire page – that have been lifted from the work of another writer, a blogger who goes by the online nom de plume Airen.

Hegemann, a child of the Internet age, does not consider what she has done plagiarism; she prefers to call it “mixing.” An article in The New York Times quotes the German teenager as saying that “Berlin is here to mix with everything.” Which sounds very DIY and cutting-edge, until you realize that Hegemann lifted that line from Arien’s blog. Hegemann claims to represent a new generation with new ideas about proprietorship vis à vis intellectual property. Essentially, for Hegemann (and, by extension everyone in her demographic cohort), in the Internet age, everything is up for grabs. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway,” Hegemann says, “only authenticity.” (How one can claim “authenticity” if one’s work is largely the creation of another is a mystery to me, but we’ll let that go for the moment.)

The current farrago puts yr. humble correspondent in mind of two other famous cases of “borrowing” material. In the first, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan was roundly excoriated when it became apparent that her 2006 novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life contained passages that were lifted verbatim from two novels by Meg McCafferty. The second case, however, turned out rather differently. In that case, not only was the “borrower” not vilified, he went on to win the 2002 Booker Prize. When some perceptive readers noticed that Yann Martel’s novel The Life of Pi bore a suspicious similarity to a lesser-known 1981 novel called Max and the Cats, by Brazilian author Moacyr Scilar, Martel freely acknowledged the debt. At the time, Mobylives quoted Martel:

“This is how it happened,” he writes in an e–mail interview with Orin Judd at BrothersJudd.com. “Ten years ago. Review in New York Times Book Review by John Updike of a Brazilian novel by one Moacyr Scliar … Not a good review. Did nothing to Updike. But premise sizzled in my mind. I thought ‘Man, I could do something with that.'”

Martel went so far as to say that Scilar provided the “spark of life” for Pi, and told the Associated Press, “I don’t feel I’ve done something dishonest.”

That being the case, one might imagine that Martel would have a certain sympathy for Hegemann. But if Axolotl Roadkill represents the thin edge of the wedge, what can we expect the future of books to look like in a world where everything from current releases to classics in the public domain is available for remix, refashioning, and reuse? We’ve already seen a glut of Jane Austen-inspired “mash-ups,” thanks to last year’s unlikely Quirk Classics bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; can we now expect that similar revisions (or, more properly, “re-visionings”) of canonical works will be forced upon us by writers with a clever idea and access to cut-and-paste computer software? For modern works, will copyright have any practical value at all?

In an interview with Hugh Maguire for Open Book: Toronto, Sean Cranbury envisions a “ridiculously dystopic” future in which source texts become collages at the hands of Internet users employing the digital equivalent of scissors and a glue stick:

People are going take text that they like or want to use for a specific purpose from wherever they can find it, and they are going to manipulate it to whatever ends they desire. Then they’re going to slap it into some kind of digital container and probably cross-pollinate the work with video, stills, music, scans of random junk found lying around and then they are going to share it. That content will then be reconstituted by others who have picked it up somewhere in the digital aether.

In this new world, Cranbury posits, “Digital content will have a universal currency rate of 0. It will simply be given away, shared, remixed and reconstituted, and the only way to determine anything like our common sense of ‘worth’ will be by its buoyancy and popularity on the P2P networks.”

In his book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, Andrew Keen quotes cyberpunk author William Gibson as saying that the words “appropriation” and “borrowing” are in fact outmoded terms that don’t mean anything to the participatory culture of the Internet. “The record,” Gibson says, “not the remix, is the anomaly today. The remix is the very nature of the digital.” To which it is tempting to point out that without the record, there is nothing to remix in the first place (hence the term remix …), but again, we’ll let that one go for now.

Keen goes on to write:

A survey published in Education Week found that 54 percent of students admitted to plagiarizing from the Internet. And who is to know if the other 46 percent are telling the truth? Copyright and authorship begin to lose all meaning to those posting their mash-ups and remixings on the Web. They are, as Professor Sally Brown at Leeds Metropolitan University notes, “Postmodern, eclectic, Google-generationists, Wikipediasts, who don’t necessarily recognize the concepts of authorships/ownerships.”

Given Hegemann’s comment that there is no such thing as originality, it may be that the word “necessarily” in Professor Brown’s assessment is de trop. What makes me nervous, however, is not that the generation coming of age with the Internet has no conception of the importance of authorship. What makes me nervous is that they do recognize this – they just don’t care.