Plagiarism debate irks authors who claim everything is derivative | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 24.02.2010
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Plagiarism debate irks authors who claim everything is derivative

In literature, borrowing is nothing new. The debate on plagiarism in Germany - sparked by lifted passages in a teenager's new novel - has annoyed authors. One even pulled a public prank to reveal the absurdity of it all.

Book shelves and a copyright symbol

Is there anything really new to be said?

The ghost of plagiarism has come back to haunt the literary scene in Germany once again.

The young Berlin author Helene Hegemann, who turned 18 last weekend, recently admitted to lifting long passages by another author. But she wasn't the first. Last December, rumors circulated in the German press that Hamburg director Fatih Akin had copied sections of Alexander Wall's novel "Hotel Monopol" for his film "Soul Kitchen."

Then in January, writer Uwe Tellkamp was accused of borrowing from Jens Wonneberger for his bestseller "Der Turm" ("The Tower"). Britain's star author J.K. Rowling has also recently been taken to court for similarities between "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and a book by Adrian Jacobs.

Copying has many names

Indeed, literature always contains something borrowed: Every author is also a reader, Roland Koch, professor for creative writing at Siegen University, told Deutsche Welle.

"Everything I read and perceive in my everyday life flows through me and comes out in my writing at some point," he said.

Helene Hegemann

Hegemann is selling books, at least

The line between true plagiarism and permissible inspiration is a fine one - an author doesn't always know where his or her ideas come from, said Koch. He recently wrote a short story that he dedicated to writer Frank Schulz, since it had been influenced by Schulz' novel "Das Ouzo-Orakel" ("The Ouzo Oracle").

"I read The Ouzo Oracle a while ago and enjoyed it," said Koch, "and I don't know whether maybe I unintentionally took something from the book. But of course that's different from sitting down and copying it word for word."

Literary history is teeming with famous authors who borrowed - some more, some less - from their colleagues.

It's documented, for example, that 19th century German dramatist and writer Georg Buechner based his short story "Lenz" on the diary of Father J.F. Oberlin. And Walter Kempowski's "Echolot" ("Sonar") is unthinkable without the letters and autobiographical reports of contemporary witnesses of World War II. Thomas Mann even wrote a whole book about the authors whose works he incorporated into his "Doctor Faustus."

Everything repeats itself

It's probably never been so difficult to enforce copyright as in the age of the Internet, where an infringement is just a mouse-click away and has long become a bagatelle. Helene Hegemann compared herself to a DJ, who "mixes everything with everything," as one of the protagonists in her novel "Axolotl Roadkill" puts it.

"Originality" doesn't exist anymore, Hegemann told the press in the wake of the plagiarism claims - "only genuineness." Then she promptly called for an end to "copyright excesses." Other authors have supported Hegemann's position, viewing plagiarism as an avant-garde copy-and-paste process and "literary remix" as a tolerable, modern form of art.

A DJ spins a record on a turntable

Hegemann compared herself to a DJ

Recognized contemporary German author Durs Gruenbein seemingly defended the young author Tuesday in a guest commentary in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In an interview published Wednesday, however, he revealed that the commentary had itself been an act of plagiarism: 99 percent of it was taken from an essay written by Gottfried Benn in 1926 concerning alleged plagiarism in a book that, coincidentally, had also been released by the publisher of "Axolotl Roadkill," Ullstein Verlag.

Ultimately, "it wasn't about Ms Hegemann," Gruenbein told the paper. "It was about this crazy literary debate.

The Buechner Prize-winning author said he hoped, with his little trick, to illustrate Friedrich Nietzsche's principle that everything repeats itself.

Making it right again

Legally speaking, however, it's doubtful that an unlimited right to copy will apply to the literature of the future. Granted, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court in June 2000 found that the Berthold Brecht quotations in Heiner Mueller's play "Germania 3" were an acceptable artistic method. But that doesn't mean that everyone else can do the same thing.

Even when the artistic method of borrowing is being implemented, the source always needs to be mentioned, said Josef Limper, a Cologne-based attorney specializing in media law and copyright.

That's precisely what Hegemann failed to do in "Axolotl Roadkill" - regardless of whether the lifted passages are considered artistic sampling or outright plagiarism.

The 18-year-old has since apologized to the writers she copied, particularly the Berlin blogger known as Airen. Hegemann used passages from his novel "Strobo" in some 20 places in her book. The publisher Ullstein Verlag, also responded by adding a six-page source list in the fourth edition of the novel.

The never-ending story

Durs Gruenbein

Gruenbein "plagiarized" to prove a point

That could have been the end of the plagiarism debate surrounding the teenager's book - if it weren't just for show. The literary quality of Hegemann's work was never at the heart of the discussion, said literary journalist Hubert Winkels. According to him, many of the critics exaggerated the plagiarism claims because they were disappointed that Hegemann never led the wild and sexy party life of the book's protagonist Mifti.

When "Axolotl Roadkill" first came out, some critics thought they were reading about the essence of real life, "about today's youth in all its depravation," explained Winkels. "And then it turned out to be just literature-literature and they felt so betrayed that they tried to undermine the author."

According to Winkels, the premature and very public praise and subsequent criticism of Hegemann's novel shows Germany's literary critics "from their worst side."

The plagiarism debate has been around for centuries and the Hegemann case likely won't be the end of it. If Nietzsche was right it will come back to haunt the literary community once again when "Axolotl Roadkill" becomes the inspiration for a new novel.

Author: Gisa Funck (kjb)

Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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