Plagiarism + Mixing + the “New Paradigm Defense” = Teachable Moment

Author, 17, Says It’s Mixing, Not Plagiarism,” (New York Times) presents a nice opportunity to talk about plagiarism and misappropriation with students.

The article chronicles the rise and issues of 17 year old author Helene Hegemann whose first novel, “Axolotl Roadkill,” received the kind of overly enthusiastic reviews in Germany that sometimes greets young authors who seemingly provide insight into the adolescent zeitgeist of their day. Think Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero from 20+ years ago.

A best seller, “Axolotl Roadkill,” has just one problem. Large parts of it are plagiarized- and unapologetically.

When challenged on plagiarism, Ms. Hegmann presents a truly honest insight into the zeitgeist of her generation making a “We’re in new age. Things work differently now; the older generation doesn’t understand” defense.

Jurors named the work a finalist for the Leipzig Prize with one juror openly knowing about the plagiarism issues.

As the appropriated passages and authors have come to light, rather than apologize and recant, Ms. Hegemann argues the appropriation of others’ works as part of her own art and what she does.

Nicholas Kulish explains in his NYT article:

“…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…”(NYT)

Ms. Hegmann’s words betray her youth and missing perspective on several levels. Authenticity provides a weak defense, at best. Authenticity, is as much, or more, of a construct than originality. Authors construct authenticity through fictional voices daily.

A stronger, more viable concept, we see originality practiced and protected every day. Scholars, authors, film makers artists, scientists, and engineers produce original ideas every day. They own their ideas and, culturally and legally, we grant them exclusive rights to their creations from which they can earn income. In short, copyright and patent protection.

Present, or use, a thought process that’s not your own, and you must inform your audience. Passing someone else’s work off as your own- on the simplest level- makes you dishonest and unreliable. Appropriate some else’s ideas or material into a product from which you profit. That’s theft.

Ms. Hegemann’s defense seems to be built on “a rules don’t apply to me approach.”  She might be better served by acknowledging her sources and signing a royalty sharing agreement.

Royalties aren’t an issue in the classroom and around school. But copyright and attribution are daily concerns.

Ms. Hegemann’s situation presents a teachable moment. Using someone else’s idea or words in a paper can seem fuzzy to some students. Taking and using another’s work for profit, that can provide some clarity.

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