When Is Re-Mixing Copyright Infringement?

Helene Hegemann is pushing the limits set by writers like James Joyce (the original Mr. Cut-and-Paste) by freely grabbing content from other writers — in some cases, entire scenes — and appropriating it for her own use. This pastiche or collage style of writing has pushed hot buttons in the ongoing debate about what constitutes copyright and plagiarism in literature. Some writers claim that the practice is so commonplace that it is simply part of the creative process — that the living inevitably borrow from the dead — and that it has been going on from time immemorial.  Shakespeare, as any college literature student knows, borrowed heavily from other playwrights. Hamlet, for example, is very like Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum; Romeo and Juliet is said to be based on Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem The Tragical History of Romeo and Juliet; and King Lear is  based on the story of King Leir in Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Borrowing plots in this way was common at the time, and after Shakespeare’s death playwrights promptly began borrowing from his works as well.

Several years ago, Jonathan Lethem wrote a brilliant article defending the use of “borrowing” by writers in their pursuit of new creation, arguing that creation itself necessarily calls upon the inchoate melange of what one has read over one’s life as an unconscious source of style, language, allegory, sentence structure, plot, and pacing, and that — in a sense — imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But now writers such as Hegemann and David Shields — whose new novel “Reality Hunger” is built almost entirely of quotations from other writers and thinkers — are pushing the boundaries as to what is appropriate as borrowing, and casting the question of copyright infringement in a different light. When is it plagiarism and not merely exercise of artistic license for transformative purposes?  When does fair use become foul? We’ve seen what has happened to the music industry as it has been pulled kicking and screaming into the future by DJs and artists who use sampling techniques to create their own unique sound, and it was only a matter of time before the issue jumped media to stodgy old print. But where is the line going to be drawn? I suspect that the answer does not lie in the simplistic question “To borrow, or not to borrow,” but rather in litigation reminiscent of Bleak House, which will leave everyone unhappy.

For a more in-depth look at what Hegemann and Shields are attempting to accomplish, see the recent article by Randy Kennedy in the NY Times.

Update:  A new interview with Helene Hegemann can be found here.

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