German Teen's Debut Novel: Plagiarism or Sampling?

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Jens Schlueter / AFP / Getty

Helene Hegemann, 17, author of Axolotl Roadkill

Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder and iconic figure of the digital age, once remarked that he had "always been shameless about stealing great ideas." The same frank revelation by a 17-year-old literary wunderkind who is accused of liberally — and unabashedly — lifting passages from another writer has now sparked a heated media debate in Germany.

Helene Hegemann's debut novel, Axolotl Roadkill, cracked Germany's best-seller list and received rave reviews by newspapers after it was published in late January. "The book is phenomenal. And its author is a phenomenon," gushed the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Another paper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, called the book "the great coming-of-age novel of the Naughties." But Hegemann didn't have much time to rest on her laurels. A blogger, Deef Pirmasens, became suspicious of the minor's vivid descriptions of drug-fueled nights at the infamous Berlin techno club Berghain and discovered that several passages of the book had been more than inspired by the writings of another German blogger, known only by the name Airen. After Pirmasens posted the passages in question from Hegemann's book and the remarkably similar passages from Airen's book, Strobo, on his blog this month, the same papers that had been full of praise for the young author only a few days before abruptly changed their tune and accused Hegemann of plagiarism.

Hegemann, who mentions Airen in the acknowledgements of the second edition of the book but not in the first, has since apologized for "not having mentioned all the people right from the outset whose thoughts and texts have helped me." But she also defended her work by claiming that "true originality doesn't exist anyway, only authenticity" and insisted on her "right to copy and transform" other people's work, taking a stand against what she called the "copyright excesses" of the past decade. Nonetheless, her publishing company, Ullstein, seemed to care about the possible legal ramifications of her actions, and issued a statement saying it had contacted Airen's publishing company and asked for retroactive authorization of the disputed passages. Ullstein also said it had already obtained permission for Hegemann to use another passage in the text by American author David Foster Wallace, which it had known about before the book's release.

The novel tells the story of a precocious 16-year-old named Mifti, who, following the death of her mother, attempts to escape the meaninglessness of her life by losing herself in the sex, drugs and violence of the Berlin club scene. Yet despite Hegemann's claims that her use of Airen's words is not plagiarism but something she calls "intertextuality," critics question whether she has pushed the limits of what is acceptable. In an age when sampling other artists' work has become ubiquitous in the music industry, where does creative sampling stop and plagiarism begin in the writing world?

"I would have found it more honest — and none the worse, creatively — if Ms. Hegemann would have asked Airen for permission to so excessively use the stories," says Debora Weber-Wulff, a media professor and plagiarism expert at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. Weber-Wulff believes that Hegemann's generation shares the same laissez-faire attitude toward copying and pasting that comes from growing up in the Internet age. "Digital information is infinitely copyable," Weber-Wulff says. But she adds that questions remain over just how much of a person's creative work can be copied and how that person is to be compensated for it. One group trying to solve this problem, she says, is a San Francisco–based nonprofit called Creative Commons, which helps artists and writers license and share their work on their own terms.

But given that plagiarism is not exactly new — Bertolt Brecht, one of Germany's most influential poets and playwrights, once famously admitted to a "laxity in questions of intellectual property" when he was accused of plagiarizing the French poet François Villon in his play Threepenny Opera — there must be another reason that explains why the Hegemann case has created a stir in Germany. Philipp Theisohn, a professor of literature at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Zurich and author of a book on the history of plagiarism, believes the case struck a chord because the literary world is eager to publish truly authentic voices of young people today. "What the literary industry wants is a child genius. A 17-year-old girl telling stories about sex and drug excesses is much more interesting than a 35-year-old male doing the same thing. But this only works with a rigorous concept of intellectual property," Theisohn tells TIME.

Theisohn wonders what the future will hold for Hegemann. Plagiarism accusations aside, he calls her book a "decent accomplishment for a 17-year-old." Weber-Wulff, too, sees reasons to be optimistic: "I suppose we should be happy that someone is actually using that ancient communication method, writing!"