Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Is it just me or does it not seem there has been a whole lotta mixing going on lately? What’s that you say? What’s mixing? Oh, sorry…that’s where you take someone else’s words and use them as your own in something you are writing. We writers call that plagiarism. Oh no it’s not, says 17-year-old German novelist Helene Hegemann. It’s mixing. From the mouths of babes, huh?

Hegemann wrote a novel called “Axolotl Roadkill” that ascended the best seller list in Germany until it reached lofty number five. Pretty heady stuff, but wait, there’s more. Then she was nominated for a prestigious writing award in Germany that came with $20,000. Later, it seemed to outsiders like her fairy tale overnight success would all come crumbling down. It was revealed that some of the passages in her book were word-for-word the same as in another book, “Strobo,” by Airen. After that, more passages were found to have been lifted from other sources.

According to the New York Times young Ms. Hegemann (below, right) was unfazed. She nonchalantly offered, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” She went on to explain that she’s part of a new generation that freely “samples” material from one place to another.

Hegemann is 17 years old in a literary world that made the rules long, long before her parents made her. Not so long ago, Germany formally subscribed to the European Copyright Law. Without boring you with the details, here’s the juicy part: Authors own their material for their entire lives plus 70 years after their deaths. So, since Airen is alive and well, it would seem that Ms. Hegemann has blatantly broken the copyright law. No sweat, says Hegemann: "I myself don't feel it is stealing,” she told a German newspaper, “because I put all the material into a completely different and unique context and from the outset consistently promoted the fact that none of that is actually by me." Spoken like a true 17 year old.

Too little, too late, say the critics worldwide. Ms. Hegemann, in the real world, we do call it stealing and we have a very special vocabulary word just for this… “plagiarism.”

Who would know better than one Gerald Posner, (left) who until last week was chief investigative reporter for The Daily Beast. That was until he resigned amid plagiarism allegations. It seems the Miami-based author was lifting entire passages directly from The Miami Herald newspaper and virtually cutting and pasting them into his online reports. Here is an example of Posner’s “mixing.”
Posner’s July 29 piece in the Daily Beast:
The new law, passed nearly unanimously in the legislature, requires doctors and pharmacists to record patient prescriptions for most drugs in a state-controlled database.
The Miami Herald, June 19:
The new law, passed nearly unanimously in the Legislature, will require doctors and pharmacists to record patient prescriptions for most drugs in a state-controlled database.
If you want to see more examples, check out Jack Shaffer’s Feb 8 piece on

Just as the media world was reeling from Posner’s stupidity came word that New York Times business reporter Zachery Kouwe is being cut from the paper because of his own plagiaristic transgressions. Kouwe apparently lifted exact passages from the Wall Street Journal and Reuters and published them in his Times reports. And who wouldn’t love this response from the young reporter? “As soon as I saw, I guess, like six examples, I said to myself, 'Man what an idiot. What I was thinking?'" Kouwe told the New York Observer. "I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that's what probably happened."

While Helene Hegemann would dismiss Kouwe’s “fuckups” simply as a new generation writing its own rules on ownership and use of intellectual property, the powers that be at the Times think otherwise. Here is what they had to say on their corrections page after Kouwe’s “mixing” came to light:
“Copying language directly from other news organizations without providing attribution — even if the facts are independently verified — is a serious violation of Times policy and basic journalistic standards. It should not have occurred. The matter remains under investigation by The Times, which will take appropriate action consistent with our standards to protect the integrity of our journalism.”
So, what is really going on here? Is it simply that there is such a massive amount of information out there in the blogosphere and elsewhere on the Web that writers convince themselves that no one will notice if they lift a few passages here and there from previously published material? Is it that Hegemann is actually stating the prevailing (albeit twisted) mindset of her generation? Or is it simply true that each of the three writers in this piece are guilty of plain old school plagiarism? And if so, have the copyright laws in the U.S. and the European Union simply not caught up with the technology that enables writers to cut and paste other writers' stuff into their own work?

I am discouraged that people like Hegemann say things such as, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway…” I find it disheartening that that Kouwe, a guy with a master’s degree in journalism who got a job at arguably the most important newspaper in the world, would cavalierly write off his violation of the paper’s honor code as a “fuck up.” And for his part, Gerald Posner said, “The core of my problem was in shifting from that of a book writer – with two years or more on a project – to what I describe as the “warp speed of the net.”

I would like to respond to each. To Hegemann: If you believe there is no such thing as originality, then you have chosen the wrong path. Art might sometimes be derivative, but it is not to be duplicated. To Kouwe: Everything is not disposable, including a golden opportunity to write for the New York Times. As a guy in your early 30s, you come from a generation that somehow sees such an opportunity as “just a job,” where you simply “fucked up.” Someday, I predict, you will look back on this event in your life as pivotal, and be amazed at what an avoidable loss this was. And to Posner: We writers all had to adapt to a faster information pace when we decided to shift our efforts to online journalism. When you agreed with Tina Brown’s decision to hire you, you made a choice to keep up with that new pace. When you found you could not do so, your real responsibility (moral and industrial) was to resign. Lifting material from a daily newspaper was not an option. And you knew that all along, each time you consciously decided to do it.

Hey, if it sounds judgmental, so be it.

I still like the old rules. They have kept most of us on the straight and narrow for a long time. Let’s not fix what ain’t broke.

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