4/20: Tug-of-War: Technology’s Impact on Plagiarism

I don’t care what you call it.  Using another writer’s words and claiming them as your own is wrong.  And, yes, there is a common word associated with the practice — stealing.

azzoli-caricature-445Don’t take my word for it.  According to Merriam-Webster.com, to “plagiarize” someone’s work is:

“to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use  (another’s production) without crediting the source.”

But, is the outrage over plagiarism outdated?  If you were to ask a highly lauded 17-year-old author from Germany, the answer is, “Yes.”  Helene Hegemann is the “author” of Axolotl Roadkill in which she lifted passages from unattributed sources.

According to a recent New York Times article, Hegemann did not offer an apology for what many, including myself, would call plagiarism.  Rather, she offered a mea culpa for not being “more open about her sources,” and said that she is “representative of a different generation” which “mixes” information from both new and old media.

Am I the only one who sees something wrong with this?  First of all, words are property just like a car or a piece of jewelry.  Would we excuse Ms. Hegemann’s behavior if she walked into a department store and walked out with a “free” bracelet, using the excuse that the vast variety of products on the market allows her to freely take the accessory to mix and match with her own?

Perhaps, equally disturbing is that Ms. Hegemann was not disqualified from the Leipzig Book Fair where she was chosen as a finalist.  In fact, the panel of jurors knew Ms. Hegemann was accused of plagiarism before the finalists were even chosen!

There is, though, a bright spot of hope for the future of literature. According to the latest national Marist Poll, half of U.S. residents think the Internet has made it less acceptable to practice plagiarism. To the 35% who say it makes the act more acceptable, I pose this question, “How would you feel if your hard work went uncredited?”

Literature, like any art form, has the ability to both reflect and define a generation.  And, there are some who say what Ms. Hegemann is doing is an offshoot of today’s culture where technology breaks down barriers and bombards us with limitless information.  In fact, that New York Times article describes Ms. Hegemann as being in the middle of Germany’s established literary community and Berlin’s youth who “breathe creativity into old forms.”

Does this mean that the future of literature will be nothing but a regurgitation of others’ creativity?  How will this help societies advance?  Will original thought be replaced by copy and paste commands?

If Ms. Hegemann simply cited her sources, perhaps, she would have been praised universally for creating a new literary genre — one which mashes different fictional works together to create a new piece of prose.  She could have been hailed as innovator who created a new fictional template mirroring today’s technological advancements. Instead, Ms. Hegemann finds herself in the eye of the storm called, “controversy,” and in a tug of war between new and old media.