Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sampling or Stealing?

Lionel Trilling famously said, "Immature artists imitate. Mature artists steal."

Not so in Germany this week—17-year-old writer Helene Hegemann has admitted that she lifted entire passages from a young Berliner's blog about his hedonistic life in the techno club scene for her debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill. I first read the story earlier this week in Spiegel Online (the English edition, I don't read German). In today's Times, I found another article that attempted to put the story into a broader context with opinions from a variety of industry professionals.

I know that plenty of my writer friends will disagree with me on this, but I'm not a purist when it comes to copyright laws and fair use. The majority of the changes that have been made to these laws in the past half century were done to protect corporate copyrights, not artists: The Walt Disney Company couldn't have cared less that George Bernard Shaw's plays were due to become public domain this year but they couldn't let that happen to Mickey Mouse! Nevertheless, I firmly believe that an artist should control how and in what context their work is presented and that no one should be allowed to profit from the fruits of someone else's labors.

I've used appropriated texts on a number of occasions in my plays. In my first one, Before I Wake, a doctor offers the audience several facts about the blood and circulation (the play is an adaptation of Dracula); the speeches are all reworked from a book I found on the subject. While I believe my changes to the original text are significant, I would never dream of publishing the play without getting permission or approval from the copyright holder; and even if the original material was in the public domain, I would still offer some sort of attribution or acknowledgment of the source material—it's not like I could have done the job without that contribution!

I don't think that any use of copyrighted material in the creation of a new work is evil or bad—unless it's being done without permission or with the intention of deceiving others about the actual authorship. Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, for example, fails the first test (even if you believe that he had not intended for the album to reach the public, he did do all of the work without permission) but passes the second—the entire point of the album was that the songs were recognizable as remixes of work created by others. Helene Hegemann, on the other hand, fails on both counts; sure, she and her publisher are "attributing" her appropriated text—now that they've been caught—but if they truly felt all along that she had done nothing wrong, why not have that attribution in place in the first edition? It seems pretty clear that Hegemann, at the very least, is more than a tad disingenuous when she says, "I can't understand what all the fuss is about."

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