It’s not “sampling” if you don’t have permission, damnit.

I just read this story via Slashdot, and it pisses me off to no end.

BERLIN — It usually takes an author decades to win fawning reviews, march up the best-seller list and become a finalist for a major book prize. Helene Hegemann, just 17, did it with her first book, all in the space of a few weeks, and despite a savaging from critics over plagiarism.

The publication last month of her novel about a 16-year-old exploring Berlin’s drug and club scene after the death of her mother, called “Axolotl Roadkill,” was heralded far and wide in German newspapers and magazines as a tremendous debut, particularly for such a young author. The book shot to No. 5 this week on the magazine Spiegel’s hardcover best-seller list.

For the obviously gifted Ms. Hegemann, who already had a play (written and staged) and a movie (written, directed and released in theaters) to her credit, it was an early ascension to the ranks of artistic stardom. That is, until a blogger last week uncovered material in the novel taken from the less-well-known novel “Strobo,” by an author writing under the nom de plume Airen. In one case, an entire page was lifted with few changes.

As other unattributed sources came to light, outsize praise quickly turned to a torrent of outrage, reminiscent of the uproar in 2006 over a Harvard sophomore, Kaavya Viswanathan, who was caught plagiarizing numerous passages in her much praised debut novel. But Ms. Hegemann’s story took a very different turn.

Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

If I can be forgiven the vernacular response, BULLSHIT. The difference between what this girl has done and the “mixers” to which she refers to is the fact that those who produce commercial mixes not only acknowledge who they are sampling from, they get the original copyright holders’ permission first.

The biggest reason for that is the song “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve. They sampled a section of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, and the Stones’ record label (the copyright holder) sued saying that the Verve did not have permission to use that sample. The courts agreed it was an infringement, and now 100% of all proceeds from the song go to the record label instead of the Stones.

If she had admitted to what she had done beforehand, and gave references in her novel, then I could understand what she did. As it stands, right now what she’s doing is making an excuse because she got caught committing the biggest cardinal sin in writing. The story says the book is still a finalist for the Leipzig Book Fair; I (and I would hope others, including author friends of mine) believe she should be instantly disqualified. This should be a black mark on her reputation, and that she’s apparently getting away with it is something I find shameful.

One thought on “It’s not “sampling” if you don’t have permission, damnit.”

  1. Even worse than a simple cardinal sin, I find plagiarism the highest form of wrong. If you are going to do work and claim it as your own, the least you can do is say “these are my sources”. If you don’t/can’t muster up the courage to point out where you blatantly ripped off of, then you may as well call it day for writing altogether.

    A great example of how it could work is the various GPL licenses. Credit where credit due. The fact that she seems to still be eligible -for anything besides a lawsuit- is beyond sinning, it’s an abomination against the craft of writing in totality.

    I go back and blame another ‘genius writer’ for a similar snow job. Just because someone actually got away with it fast enough doesn’t justify doing it at all.


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