Authenticity without Originality?

A new article in the New York Times poses a question by way of a quotation: can there be authenticity without originality?

Helene Hegemann is a finalist for a major book prize in Germany for “Axolotl Roadkill.”   She is 17, and her book is the #5 hard-cover best-seller right now according to Der Spiegel.  Bloggers have discovered that in some cases, whole pages of text are virtual copies of other, lesser-known works.  The judges are aware of this fact, but rate her creative assembly very highly anyway.  But here’s the real bombshell: “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” said Ms. Hegemann in a statement released by her publisher after the scandal broke.

Earlier this week I heard Nnenna Freelon sing at the Emerging Issues Forum, where Charlie Rose asked the question about when does creativity begin for a singer.  I thought it was a great question, and wondered how she would treat the subject of the song, but she said “it begins when you give voice to a song”.  I could just imagine the copyright lobby lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks, but I cheered her answer anyway.

Roger Daltrey asserts that “it’s the singer not the song,” and this seems to agree with Ms. Freelon’s perspective.  I won’t throw the whole song under the bus—Gershwin’s Summertime is a work of such arresting creativity, whose every phrase links together the richest tapestry of music and meaning and mourning for me—that I cannot give him no credit whatsoever.  But neither could I countenance the idea that nothing new can or should come from that 75 year old invention.  And this perhaps gets to the heart, the mistaken heart of Hegemann’s thesis.  Her perspective is logical consequence of the existential crisis that Larry Lessig has been talking about for years.  With an exponentially increasing amount of content being locked up by private interests for virtual perpetuity, any progency of any prior creativity becomes a legal nightmare.  The only legal form of originality is one which has no basis in or connection to any prior experience.  That, in a word, is absurd.

For Hegemann, the existential choice she makes is to reject originality so that she can affirm what she believes herself to be: the authentic.  But by being such a liberal copier, she achieves instead the absurd.  This is not an indictment of her, but an indictment of a system that provides a young and creative author no other choice.  Such is the pathology of our current system of copyrights.

Author: Michael Tiemann

Open source pioneer. Red Hat Executive. UNCSA Trustee. Ninja.

One thought on “Authenticity without Originality?”

  1. First, let me say that I don’t know the extent of her copying other than that in at least one instance the article mentions that she copied virtually an entire page And I know you’re at least part right that the problem is a “system that provides [her] no other choice.” But let me pose a question. Is it illegal for her to use a portion of this other author’s work? If it’s illegal, then you’re right. But, legally speaking, I don’t know what the consequences would be if she’d copied this other author’s work and then cited it — giving credit to it. I wonder if fair use laws would suggest that a few cited passages like this would be OK. Beyond that, I’d ask if copyright law would says she has to pay royalties to use part of this other work. Then I would wonder ‘how much does she have to pay?’ and ‘is that amount egregious?’ Imagine you’re that copied author and this girl makes a ton of money partly off of inspiration from your work. Do you you deserve some kind of renumeration?

    Obviously I’m speaking extemporaneously and hypothetically here, but it seems that some workable economic system could be set up so that people like Ms. Hegemann could use other work ethically, citing it, while people like Airen could get some kind of reasonable monetary credit based on how well Ms. Hegemann’s work sells.

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