It's "mixing," not plagiarism, says much-lauded 17-year-old author

Helene Hegemann, a celebrated author and playwright in Berlin who's all of 17 years of age, is at the center of a plagiarism controversy after blogger Deef Pirmasens "last week uncovered material in the novel taken from the less-well-known novel Strobo, by an author writing under the nom de plume Airen. In one case, an entire page was lifted with few changes." Hegemann insists it's remixing, not stealing. She's being pummeled by angry Amazon users.


  1. Nope, I’m pretty sure that it’s “post-hoc rationalization”…

    There are well evolved norms for textual “remixing”. They involve citation. Other people’s text? Sure, sometimes fairly large chunks of it; but cited.

    Footnotes sound kind of silly in audio, so they don’t do that over there; but text takes to them pretty well. If you are on the internet, you can even make your citations into links. Future crazy, I know.

  2. One page? Out of how many? It might be helpful to link to the actual post, rather than the top of the blog.

  3. Whenever we have a thread on this subject, people often ask what the difference between plagiarism and copyfightin’ is. One clear thing that differentiates plagiarism from ‘remixing’ is the lying that’s involved — permitting other people to believe that you created something you didn’t, or representing another’s work as your own.

    Plagiarists outright deny it because they don’t see themselves as remixers — one often gets the impression they wish they had been the author of the work they appropriated.

    That she’s claiming ‘remix!’ after being called out is actually pretty clever. It could be because she’s so profoundly bad at plagiarism that denial is impossible. But it could also be a sign of a very talented bullshitter, which I can respect.

    1. I have yet to hear a music “remixer” suddenly shout out in a middle of a song “the background music in this part was taken from Song X by Artist Y” the way proper citations are done in text. At best there may be some exchange of royalties behind the scenes, but that’s it.

      1. Getting clearance for samples is in fact a giant (and important) paint in the ass for musicians. The suggestion that it happens without fuss (or without the public being aware) hasn’t been thought through, IMO.

        1. I know it’s a big *legal* deal. That’s what I said about royalties. But they *don’t* cite the source publicly the way one is expected to in print.

  4. I’m hardly surprised a 17 year old struggles to generate original thoughts, but plagiarism is weak.

    Crime and misdemeanors are just that. You would get thrown out of university for this in Australia. She calls it ‘mixing’? How bout she grows up and learns the phrase ‘mea culpa’.

    Sue the kid. Teach her a lesson. Send a warning to others.

    1. “I’m hardly surprised a 17 year old struggles to generate original thoughts, but plagiarism is weak.”

      I’m 40-odd and I struggle to generate original thoughts. Fortunately, I merely do homages, and thus avoid the plagiarism (which is a bitch to spell, BTW.)

  5. Well, if you actually RTFA, the novel itself is about the remix culture of Berlin. You could make a case that she is actually intentionally creating the book through remixing as an example of that theme. Certainly the judges of the book contest saw it that way, as they were well aware of the plagiarism before they accepted it as an entry.

    Here’s TechDirt explicating that point of view.

  6. What would her actions have been before ‘copyright’ existed as a concept – an idea?

    When you tell a joke and get a laugh, did you credit the original author of the joke or steal the laughs and goodwill that should have been his?!

    Maybe the problem is not that she used the words of another, but that people are so intent on attributing glory and plaudits to individuals, rather than to the words.

    1. @Blue: The idea of plagiarism is distinct, and far older, from the idea of copyright infringement. A classic criticism against the Roman historian Livy was that he made his histories by lifting huge chunks of earlier historians without attribution (although lately there’s been a pro-Livy faction that claims that the degree of his plagiarism was exaggerated)

    2. Blue, no one cares if you didn’t come up with a joke because I’m not a comedian and my livelyhood doesn’t come from telling jokes.

      She is not only a published, professional author, she is winning prizes for essentially other people work in crucial parts of her book.

      This isn’t remixing. She isn’t struggling against bureaucracy to be able to use someone else’s words in her book. That’s simple and has been done and used in books for centuries. She simply didn’t tell anyone until she was found out by someone else.

      Claming remixing after the fact only cheapens the DJ she claims to emulate by passing it off as plagiarism.

  7. One doesn’t need to believe that it’s stealing from the original author (and I don’t since I don’t think IP is legitimate property) to understand that it is wrong to not provide attribution and that it is possibly a matter of fraud (stealing) with regards to those who bought her novel with the expectation that it was her work. So yes it’s not stealing from Airen but it a failure of moral obligation to Airen to attribute the source; and it possibly is stealing from anyone who transferred property (money) to her thinking they were getting an original work.

    1. “So yes it’s not stealing from Airen but it a failure of moral obligation to Airen to attribute the source; and it possibly is stealing from anyone who transferred property (money) to her thinking they were getting an original work.”

      Show me someone who does COMPLETELY original work.

      I have no problem with people saying “I said that two years ago” or whatever, but if you didn’t set the world on fire, don’t hate on those who did. Because odds are I can find someone who said that earlier.

      1. “Because odds are I can find someone who said that earlier.”

        Even if, not in almost the same words, over and over again, in long sequences.

        We are not talking about paraphrasing – this is a case of copy/paste.

  8. I’m really confused. Is it only one other book, or multiple books?
    If it’s only one, that’s not mixing.
    If it’s more then one, I’m willing to think about it more and how and where sampling fits in, but only one other book = not sampling/mixing.

  9. A whole page is a whole page….and its plagiarism. She didn’t inadvertantly come up with a few identical lines..this wasn’t rehashing an already expressed thought or sentiment…this was stealing. Call it what it is…don’t hide behind “IP” arguments….if you don’t have an original thought or an original take on a thought…then obviously you don’t need to be expounding on the subject. Its no wonder people think this is alright….with so many of you so eager to defend outright thievery….likely because you are guilty of it yourselves.

  10. Given a global culture that sees nothing wrong with lifting a hook from one song and making another one out of it (not a remix, a ‘new’ song), where this is actually the norm in popular culture, I’m just surprised this doesn’t happen more often in other artistic disciplines.

  11. @Johnathan: I honestly don’t know when the idea of plagiarism arose, but it’s not really applicable to ancient authors such as Livy, for whom copying from earlier, “greater” authors was de riguer. Not just done, not just acceptable, but expected. So criticism there is not a matter of anti-livy or pro-livy but of context.

    Ancient history digression aside, in today’s society we have a pretty solid code of conduct for copying in texts, and a completely different scholarly/authorial culture. I don’t think you can get away with just saying “it’s a remix, duh!” without some sort of attribution, as there are some fairly well laid out protocols for that sort of thing for the written word. Additionally, you might get away with it if you used an extremely well known text, because then attribution would seem unnecessary. But with something more obscure? Just sounds like claiming credit for something that is not yours to me.

    1. The traditional put down of Livy was that “he made his histories with scissors and paste”. Which might not have been true, but it wouldn’t have been a very effective insult if copying was 100% ok in ancient times, even if they had no concept of copyright.

  12. If you RTF German blog, he says that the Leipzig finalists were decided on Jan 28, before the plagiarism was discovered on February 7. Also, from what can be gleaned from a Google translation, her publisher has said it’s their fault for not getting all the permissions. He thinks it’s a way for the book contest to save face.

    1. the plagiarism was discovered on the 5th and her publisher said it’s all her fault, but that they are trying to get the permissions now.

  13. “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,'”

    As a young writer myself, this statement really worries me. I pray that this upcoming generation doesn’t think that this is flag you can fly with credibility and pride. A few are working diligently to make the “remix” a plague on art. UGH “whirring flood of information” how’s she supposed to check every little source in such a hostile environment as the internet. Clearly she is just a victim (insert sarmarc, and aim for me head).

    1. don’t worry too much, the hypocrite doesn’t believe it herself (ending a blogentry with the announcement to sue every thief of her work). she was just the next big thing hyped by literary & art critics (one of whom is published by the same publisher).

  14. I recently finished the new book from Delillo, where he used an existing work of art as a source for his story. The difference is that there is a clear citation at the end of the work and no attempt at subterfuge from DeLillo.

  15. Helene Hegemann didn’t just copy from one book or blog, she used the work of several other people. At the moment, the whole thing seems to develop into something akin to “Californication” (“Fucking and Punching”).
    If you read German, and read her interviews, you can’t help the feeling that she deserves what she gets. Arrogance doesn’t make it okay to rip off the work of others.

  16. I’m actually intrigued by the idea of lifting a full page from someone else, and putting it in the context of a different story. It seems like utter plagiarism, but it’s much more like an A+B mashup than just borrowing lines here and there. Maybe an imperfect execution, though. Imagine taking just the dialogue from another novel and writing your own words around it… THAT would be a remix.

    At any rate, in remix culture I’m fairly confident the basic standard is to say up front (prominently, so not buried in footnotes or in small text on the copyright page) that you’re sampling from certain people. I’d argue footnotes would take away from the effect, even. A secondary effect of remixing is encouraging the audience to look up what you’ve used, so they can see the two interpretations side-by-side. The more detail in the attribution, the less effective that’ll be. But if attribution didn’t happen AT ALL, I would say either her publisher screwed up, or she isn’t as much a proponent of remix culture as she’s pretending to be.

    1. “Imagine taking just the dialogue from another novel and writing your own words around it… THAT would be a remix.”

      That would be certainly something I’d like to see. Or indeed the opposite – replacing ONLY the dialogue. Done well, either form has the potential to be a satisfying ‘new’ work. ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ is, I believe (not having read it more than an extract), something along those lines, though of course in that case the original work is entirely obvious.

  17. A few things I feel are getting lost in this debate:

    – this is a novel she “wrote.” It was printed. On paper. It was not a free performance.
    – She got a lot of money and kudos for writing the novel. She got paid.
    – She never mentioned where this non-original material was from… leaving readers to guess which parts were “Borrowed” and which were actually written

    Compare to:
    – when a remix song uses samples, it is generally very obvious the sample is not created by the artist. Often the original source is obvious to the audience, which is what makes it useful as an homage.
    – when a remix song is sold, the original sources are credited or paid or both.

  18. I’m somewhat bothered by the idea (or allegation) that some generation gap exists where this is something that clearly wasn’t considered ok has been relabeled to sound like it is perfectly fine.
    With that said, I’d like to see this story. If, for example, she has created something akin to a concept album that rethinks the concept of a novel–like a non-linear fragmented assemblage of the character’s thoughts–then what she is doing could be fully understandable (and somewhat expected, based on the context).

  19. As a German reader, I must say that this was clearly not just artistic remixing. It was groping for ideas, expressions, settings. She has a good sense of rhythm and for what works with her intended audience. The result is not necessarily authentic. For instance, she casually describes foorays into drug use in some notable clubs in Berlin, where she certainly wouldn’t get admitted as a 17 year old, and so she lifts the scenes from other works.
    Lifting is not limited to a single page or so. And she usually leaves the nouns and adjectives of the original intact, while reshuffling the sentences; she probably genuinely believed that this would constitute sufficient innovation to escape accusations of plagiarism. Besides lesser known books, she also used movies and song lyrics as a source of inspiration.
    Some of the outrage is probably fueled by other authors that do not feel that she is deserving the Wunderkind status she enjoyed with the the publication. After all, the clue to her success was not the quality or originality of her writing, but her privileged access to media attention (due to her family, she is connected to a lot of the “right” people).

  20. Sampling and remixing aren’t the same thing, although the dividing line it blurry. And if it were to be considered sampled, then citation is the norm. As is getting permission. There have been examples of hip hop songs where the desired sample was unusable due to permission issues and therefore workarounds had to be discovered. Of course the original invariably finds it’s way into the mixtape circuit but that’s half the fun for the collector.
    this girl needs to be made to pay her sources and cite them in a section at the back like albums that include samples.

  21. As @phisrow commented above, this has upset folks because there are norms around textual remix involving citation. But aren’t 17 year olds supposed to challenge ethical norms, even before they have a worked out defense of their challenges? I hope so–especially around emergent topics like remix culture, even in a venerable medium such as the print novel.

    I can’t wait to see the book now myself and to use this discussion around it to understand how notions of plagiarism and ownership of the word are playing out for a kid, and young author, coming of age in a remixable world. i am also intrigued to see how I feel about the consistency of voice and the significance of the sampled bits to the whole. If a lifted page fits smoothly into a novel, that seems a pretty cool trick. i wonder, to use the U.S. legal terminology, if she has made “transformative” and thus a fair use of the material.

    If anyone is to blame for not holding the line of established citation norms, it must be the publisher. The author should be maverick, especially a teen author.

    1. How does theft challenge ethical norms, though? Theft itself is an ethical norm, a banal, maladaptive kind in most cases. I’m not sure that her age and stage of life are the best evidence for arguing over the aesthetic and legal questions at issue: “kids are supposed to steal” is as bad a legal defense for stealing candy bars as it would be for stealing someone else’s novel. I’m not sure it works as an aesthetic argument, either: as Flaubert said, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” And he knew a bit about what challenging ethical norms really means.

      1. The author’s defense against allegations of plagiarism and stealing with her claim of remix explicitly challenges ethical norms (of school, corporate media business, the Arts and other institutional power), and I think I’ll wait to have a look at the work (and the source work sampled) before I condemn it as theft. I do not suggest that kids are supposed to steal, but I find that younger folks often have a different sense about what is usable culture in the form of media texts and what is owned IP, a sense that may be evolving differently from their forebears who grew up under the 20th century (mostly one-way) media ownership model. Without having read the works, @Felton’s comment about how the author makes a remix culture argument while profiting from a copyright culture business model is a more compelling charge of dubious ethics. For me, I’d have to know more to judge whether the use of others’ text was transformative in terms of amount, purpose, nature, and effect on potential markets (obviously, I like using the U.S. fair use concepts to think this stuff through).

        1. My point was that for a teenager to act out and then pretend it was all about the politics, man, isn’t challenging ethical norms: it’s a banal reinforcement of the ethical norms of a teenager. (I think they call it puberty?) I rather think one has to earn one’s challenging of society through experience and reasoned reflection, not simply by grabbing the latest tech du jour and misusing it in a public manner.

          If she’s lifting whole pages, I don’t see how that’s remixing from an aesthetic or political standpoint, and that the author doesn’t make a cogent defense on these lines is telling.

          And I think the generational gap is a really weak argument: imagine using that to beat a murder rap, “Well, my young client’s generation has some pretty progressive ideas regarding human life….” It wouldn’t work, obviously. Ignorance of the law has never been an excuse. Her generation’s quite free to run for office and change the law, though: hopefully she’ll have a more reasoned-out platform than “It’s what we kids do! We want the data that wants to be free to be free!” if she decides to do this….

          1. Not sure about German law, but in the U.S. the ultimate question is whether or not she’s adding more to benefit society than she is costing the sampled author for her use…mini monopolies on intellectual property (i.e. copyright) have been granted with limitations in order to strike this balance. A claim of “remix” would not necessarily be a simple flaunting of the law. As the only commenter who has seemed to have read the work in question suggests (see Anonymous #30), the author may indeed believe that her use is a legitimate cultural practice adding value to the work and benefiting society (while obviously serving herself too!). The interpretation of this balance should indeed take into account changes evolving around concepts of authorship in recent decades. Your flippant comment about “it’s what we kids do” is funnier than you let on given the success of “best practices” statements from communities like the Documentary Filmmakers who have recently taken back rights to sample other media wholesale in their own work because “it’s what they do,” that is, it’s the new norm since it’s become possible in the past few decades. [oh, and the murder analogy is silly…but you knew that]

          2. Sorry, but repeating “remixing” isn’t really doing much to clarify why this would constitute valid refashioning of another’s work, and not simple theft as established under copyright law. Ditto with shout-outs to the daring creativity of teenagers: next you’ll be arguing that the goth kid stealing black eyeliner from the supermarket is “performatively enacting a nomadic stance to commodity capitalism.” Which I’d agree with, but good luck, as I said before, with that in court, even aesthetic court.

  22. According to her, I’m one generation too old to ‘get it’, but my art education stated that the lines between remixing and plagiarism are extremely murky so be transparent and obvious if you’re going to use other artists’ stuff. I can appreciate the idea behind creating a ‘remixed’ universe for your story. However, it’s not like she chose to use parts of Homer’s Iliad or The Wizard of OZ (both highly recognisable by many). She used an obscure source and couldn’t expect most readers would understand the ‘hommage’. That’s looking much less creative and clever than dishonest.

    I’m in favour of remixing if it is done in a spirit of openness and transparency, not as a defensive excuse whenever caught with apparent plagiarism. By explicitely crediting your sources, you not only protect your own reputation but preserve a sense of respect and fairness between contributors of the art world. I don’t see why ‘remixers’ of whatever generation couldn’t do something so simple and courteous.

  23. I have mixed thoughts about this, but in the end, I’ll let it boil down to this:

    If I copypast-… er… I mean… “remix” several passages of Hegemann’s novel without attribution or authorization for my own novel and profit from it, will she or her publisher sue me to Hell and back?

    It’s easy to call yourself part of some remix generation as long as it lets you make a lot of money. I’m genuinely curious what her reaction would be if people used her work as if it was public property.

    And regarding the entire “That’s the POINT! It’s about remixing, so I remixed! Brilliant!” argument: Did she initially claim to have written the book fully herself? From what I read so far, she sold it as HER work ABOUT the remix culture. Were there indicators or admissions that it was created by “remixing” BEFORE she got caught?

    1. If I copypast-… er… I mean… “remix” several passages of Hegemann’s novel without attribution or authorization for my own novel and profit from it, will she or her publisher sue me to Hell and back?

      I was wondering the same thing. She can argue all she wants that she’s part of a new remix culture, and that charges of plagiarism come from an older culture that doesn’t “get it,” but that kind of goes against the business model that’s making her rich and famous.

  24. In response to a comment above that stated that audio samples are usually obvious, well, that’s just wrong. Maybe if yr Puffy and chomp a Police song, but most deejays or musicians are crate diggers who purposefully find obscure samples. And it took a while for the original musician to get compensated (see ESG’s song “Sample Credits Don’t Pay Our Bills”).

    If this situation does become the norm (or acceptable) in literature, I’m sure a legal process will be set up to compensate and credit the original source(s), as has happened in music.

  25. There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity

    This is such a perfect example of what Daniel Dennett calls a ‘deepity’.

  26. Calling “remix” after getting caught is an indication that she already knew it was dishonest, legally and ethically. I haven’t gone to school in Germany, but I’ll bet warnings against plagiarism and copying off of other people’s tests start long before college. That’s not a generational issue.

    If she’s so darn savvy about media mixing in today’s world, my guess is she’s well aware that commercial artists, who actually get money for their work (like her), actually get permission to use other people’s work before they’re going to publish something they’ve so clearly copied, pay the other artist, and cite them as well. Fail on all counts.

    I’m sure she’s very talented, but she’ll have to redeem herself after this mistake. It seems to me more than a little stupid for a creator to blow off a credible charge of plagiarism.

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