The Way of the Word

4. March 2010

Generation Swipe

There are two very similar cases under general discussion these days.

Comic fans talk about Nick Simmons, son of KISS memberGene Simmons, who copied several manga (mostly Bleach) to make his own comic Incarnate. When caught, Simmons issued a non-apology.

Germany has a similar case, but involving prose not comics. 17 year old supposed child prodigy Helene Hegemann, daughter of German playwrite Carl Hegemann, wrote a book, which was fawned over by critics, became a bestseller and was nominated for a major German literary prize. Like Simmons’s comic, however, it soon turned out that Hegemann’s novel was also swiped from other sources. Like Simmons, Hegemann doesn’t see why that is a bad thing.

“Inhaltlich finde ich mein Verhalten und meine Arbeitsweise aber total legitim und mache mir keinen Vorwurf, was vielleicht daran liegt, dass ich aus einem Bereich komme, in dem man auch an das Schreiben von einem Roman eher regiemäßig drangeht, sich also überall bedient, wo man Inspiration findet. Originalität gibt’s sowieso nicht, nur Echtheit.”

(Translation: “Content wise, I consider my actions and work method totally legitimate and do not find myself to blame, which might be because I come from a field where you also approach the writing of a novel more like a director, so you help yourself to anything where you find inspiration. There’s no such thing as originality anyway, only authenticity.”)

I notice several similarities in these cases: both are about the same age. Hegemann is 18 by now, Simmons is 21. Both have (more or less) famous parents who themselves work in a creative field: Hegemann’s father is a writer, Simmons’s father is a musician.

(Which means both fathers need to reflect on how and why they failed to teach their child to respect the intellectual property rights of creators.)

Both, when caught out, do not acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. Instead, both seem to feel that what they did is perfectly all right.

The main difference is in the reaction of people around them. Radical Comics, who published Simmons’s Incarnate, pulled Simmons’s comic from their line-up and make an effort to talk with the creators whose work Simmons swiped.

Hegemann’s publisher Ullstein reacted not by taking the book off the market (which would have been the honorable thing to do), but by adding a listing of “sources” that Hegemann used to the fourth printing of her novel.  Instead of acknowledging that stealing is wrong, Ullstein went to the offensive and turned the accusations into a debate on the meaning of plagiarism in modern times: the file-sharing culture.

Apparently, the judges of the Leipziger Book Fair’s Awards Jury agree with Ullstein’s defense. Hegemann’s book was — and still is — a finalist for their literature prize, worth €20.000. The fact that Hegemann, to put it crassly, didn’t write her book but instead copied & pasted it doesn’t bother them at all.

Another case of plagiarism, that of Jens Lindner’s Döner for One, had a different ending: publisher Piper recalled the book and apologized to the writer of the original. Writer Jens Lindner also apologized. Sort of. At least in his apology, he acknowledged that what he had done was wrong. But then, Lindner is a different generation from Simmons and Hegemann.

That, I think, might be the difference. Perhaps Ullstein is right, and the jury of the Leipzig Book Fair has a correct grasp on how western culture is developing, and it’s just old fogeys who still place any value in intellectual property. Perhaps it is really so that the future of creating is no longer creating, that it will all just be about copying and pasting what others created into a semi-new context. Bascially, creating without effort. After all, why make an effort and spend years to learn and practice a craft until you’re good enough, if you can get some instant (although fake) recognition practically overnight.

Or perhaps Ullstein, the critics and the Leipzig Book Fair jury are just exercising damage control: never admit that you were wrong.

(As a snarky aside, I can almost agree with one thing she said: the part about the lack of originality. Have you looked at bookstore shelves recently? Doesn’t the selection within the various genres seem very homogenous? But that’s a different blog post for a different time.)

The question the Simmons and Hegemann cases raise are, in my opinion, decisive questions: do copyright and ownership of intellectual property still matter? Is making your own effort still something worth doing? Is a culture based on stealing the intellectual property of others worth preserving? Is it even a culture at all?

If Simmons and Hegemann are really the harbingers of a shift in Western culture, if they are just the first and biggest example of what we would need to call Generation Swipe, then I no longer fear for our culture. I give up on it. A culture based on theft is no culture at all, and not worth preserving.

Me? I confess I’m tempted. Just take a couple of Ullstein books (since they are so relaxed about copyright and IP) and copy & paste the contents into something resembling something original. Get a publishing contract, literary recognition and major literary awards. After all, the alternative is to work hard on each story that I create, get rejection upon rejection, and fade into unrecognized obscurity.

I think I’ll go with choice #2. I’m shallow enough to want the adulation of the crowds, but not shallow enough to want it at the cost of my soul.

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1 Comment »

  1. [...] it helps if your family is connected. To look back at my Generation Swipe post, does anyone really think that Nick Simmons or Helene Hegemann would have gotten that far if [...]

    Pingback by It’s Not What You Know « The Way of the Word — 22. March 2010 @ 09:53


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