Helene Hegemann, a German teenager, gained notoriety for writing a best-selling novel in 2012 about Berlin club life (Axolotl Roadkill) which was later revealed by a blogger to include pages and long passages lifted from other works. Additional unattributed sources used by Hegemann subsequently came to light and she became a cause célèbre: But “[i]nstead of offering an abject apology, Ms. Hegemann said she was sorry for not being more open about her sources, but she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation. ‘There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.’ A few critics rose to her defense, and the book remained a finalist for the Leipzig book fair’s prize for a fiction (but did not win)” (Gabriel, 2010).
Is this case of copying truly the expression of a youth culture of authors, artists and musicians who borrow and sample freely and thereby breathe new life into old works? Or does this example suggest the need to revisit traditional notions of plagiarism?
If this were just a case of plagiarism exposed, it would be relatively easy to deal with, publically and legally. However, her defense and the content of the work itself resonates as the concepts of plagiarism and piracy in a digital age are considered. One of the most famous of the “borrowed” passages comes early in the book when the protagonist’s brother, Edmond, tells her: “Berlin is here to mix everything with everything, man…I steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels my imagination…because my work and my theft are authentic as long as something speaks directly to my soul. It’s not where I take things from—it’s where I take them to” (Hegemann, 2012).
Subsequently, Hegemann has discussed how ironic the controversy about this passage is—given that she took it from someone who had already lifted it from another source (Connolly, 2012). Are we seeing a “model young person, who freely borrows from the vortex of information to mash up a new creative work?” While some embrace this theory, it does not wash with those who believe that relaxing plagiarism standards “does not foster creativity, it fosters laziness.” (Gabriel, 2010).
The defense by this young author raises the intriguingly rich concept of authenticity. Authenticity, in this sense, is personally defined. Socrates said, “To find yourself, think for yourself” (Plato). Is thinking that what honestly speaks directly to your soul enough, or do other standards persist in a digital age? Do we live in a time of “digital bandits” or a time in which this more contemporary version of authenticity is to be honored rather than condemned?
Technology today enables or, some would argue, promotes, copying. In “the age of mechanical reproduction” the concepts of copying and imitating have changed. Digitalization facilitates copying with ease and the expectation of perfect duplication. The current media environment is a far cry from that described by one of the authors of this essay more than a quarter-century ago in “The Conception of Perfection and the Ambiguity of Perception” (Gumpert, 1987). Since perfect copies are available at one’s fingertips, whether the intended use is to borrow, imitate, pirate or duplicate, has the time come to redefine authenticity?
The entire exercise raises the question of the value placed on originality, a foundational concept of plagiarism as well as copyright law. Must the issue of plagiarism now be reformulated or re-understood within the larger context of the current media environment?
Digitalization in general, and the Internet in particular, empowers plagiarism, both intentional or unintentional. Observers of the educational and business scenes note with alarm that we appear to have spawned a “generation of cheaters.” Today’s students are “digital natives,” having grown up with digital technology. “But natives can run wild, using the Internet to (wittingly or unwittingly) plagiarize others’ work” (Saltman, 2011). “Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students—who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking—understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image” (Gabriel, 2010).
Studies of perceptions and behaviors of digital natives suggest that cognitive changes have occurred. There is a significant implication of changes wrought in neurological processing as well as ethics of the digital natives. We must consider that we are dealing with individuals who are increasingly
accustomed to the fast-paced and constant modes of transmission that one expects from hand-held devices and Internet surfing in which readers jump from hyperlink to hyperlink, skimming materials for key nuggets of critical information without stopping to digest the entire webpage. In addition to reflexively seeking out information online with which to better understand the world, …they are also accustomed to receiving constant updates in the form of email and text messages, tweets, and notices from social networking sites that do not require active intent to acquire new information” (Waters & Hannaford-Agor, 2012).
Should a technological frame now be employed for understanding or judging what may be digital banditry?
Media Generations and Generation Gaps
In 1985 Robert Cathcart and Gary Gumpert wrote “Media Grammar and Generation Gaps.” That essay took the position
1) That there were a set of codes and conventions integral to each medium.
2) That such codes and conventions constitute part of our media consciousness.
3) That information processing made possible through these various grammars influenced our perceptions and values.
4) That the order of acquisition of media literacy would produce a particular world perspective that relates and separates persons accordingly. (Gumpert & Cathcart, 1985)
In 1985 Gumpert and Cathcart were stating the obvious—that a view of the world was defined not just by invention and technology, but also by the speed of introduction of invention into market consciousness (usually labeled “innovation”). So the interval between insertion and diffusion of a communication innovation into our physical and psychic awareness constitutes a media generation. Additionally, the apparently increasing speed of the introduction of such innovations indicates that media generations have become shorter.
Between 1985 and 2014 (a period of only 29 years) a new complication has developed, that of “convergence.” In 1985 “media grammar and generation gaps” referred to the introduction of discrete identifiable technological innovations—radio, black-and-white television, color television, hi-fi and stereophonic sound, among others. In 2010 Drucker and Gumpert addressed the phenomenon of “technological convergence” in which one or more discrete communication technologies becomes seamlessly integrated into a newer innovation. (2010). For example, for the general public, drama in theater turned into drama in the film, and television subsumed much of film (and radio, which had a brief drama glory period between the ascendencies of film and television).
At the heart of recent technological convergence is digitalization and the conversion of messages to a binary code of “0” and “1”s. “The shift from analog to digital is fundamental to convergence, since all electronic signals are convertible.” As a result of digitalization, one technology could easily be absorbed into another. We can listen to radio on our computer. We can watch film and television on our iPads. We can telephone using most electronic devices. We can perform multiple functions on each gadget—some of which we haven’t even learned to do yet (Drucker & Gumpert, 2011).
The speed of innovation and the introduction and convergence of new or modified communication technologies may be difficult to comprehend. The iPhone allows one to speak and Siri can talk back. QR codes can be scanned with an iPhone or iPad, or equivalent, in order to receive more detailed information or to purchase a product, from a newspaper or magazine, a post card, or from a store sign. One can scan a product’s QR code found on the television screen putting an item directly into an electronic shopping cart. CourseSmart (being tested by Pearson and McGraw-Hill) allows professors to track their students’ progress with digital textbooks (Streitfeld, 2013). Television, radio, film, computer, telephone, and the classroom have been placed in a giant blender intertwined and redefined. We are in an age of “co-production,” “co-creation,” and “prosumption,” in which consumers produce and content is borrowed and rearranged (Bloem, et al, 2009). The original medium—whatever it was—has been processed and redefined and subsumed.
But increasingly, young people “assume that their non-commercial use and intent not to profit means that it should be fine...” Fewer young people seem to recognize or care about this: “There are about 489,000 YouTube videos ‘no copyright intended’ or some variation, and about 664,000 videos carry a ‘copyright disclaimer’ citing the fair use provision in Section 107 of the Copyright Act” (Baio, 2011). Who is to define plagiarism?
Do the sets of codes and conventions integral to each medium which constitute part of our media consciousness now require a re-evaluation of age-old media-bound conceptualizations of the kind of theft called plagiarism?
“Me Media Generation”
Digitalization and Web 2.0 has led to the latest media generation characterized by a “me media” environment which places “ME” at the center of a global media universe. “Me media” technology revolves around personal choice. Digital media give people an almost infinite choice of what they can do and when they can do it. We are moving from traditional mass media and interpersonal media environments into a single media environment facilitated by convergence. Digital media are interactive, empowering users to choose, select, demand and filter. The tools of the moment include MP3 players, blogs, podcasts, DVRs, customized Web sites, and satellite radio. Transformed are old media and use patterns. Newspapers are changed by users who opt for customized online news sites getting news based on interest, sports scores based on loyalty, stock quotes based on investment, weather based on location, and ads based on demographics, psychographics and prior purchase patterns. Personalized newspapers learn from previously-read news to identify articles matching personal interests “to create a front page of news stories specifically for you.”
Nearly two decades ago, technologist Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab predicted that the daily news would become the “Daily Me” (1995). Publishing has been transformed into on-demand downloading of e-books and magazines. Television viewing also has changed, with DVRs now providing video-on-demand. Online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon offer “entertainment your way” with made-for-streaming content now an option. Radio listening is available anywhere, anytime online, and the fast-growing satellite radio market further enhances the appeal of choice to even the narrowest tastes.
Music, once controlled by radio DJs’ choices, program directors metachoices, and album producers’ selections, are finely tailored by audiences. Pandora’s Music Genome Project® created, as they modestly assert, the “most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken.” With Pandora, the Music Genome Project “will quickly scan its entire world of analyzed music, almost a century of popular recordings—new and old, well known and completely obscure—to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice....” Pandora.com (2014) claims that you can create up to 100 unique “stations.”
Plagiarism needs to be understood contextually, within a larger media environment. A half-century ago, Harold Innis’ work on the social history of communication media contrasted time-biased media with space-biased media. (Time-biased media such as stone and clay are durable and heavy and epitomized by the medium of speech, while space-biased media are light and portable, and associated with secular and territorial societies and the medium of paper.) But the bias represented by digital media is distinct from either time- or space-based bias, so this digital-bias needs to be considered. In identifying the bias each medium embodies in terms of the organization and control of information, Innis suggested we ask three basic questions:
How do specific communication technologies operate?
What assumptions do they take from and contribute to society?
What forms of power do they encourage? (Innis, 1964).
The digital bias assumes that communication technologies operate on demand, offering almost limitless information, access and choice. Content can be modified instantly, and usually undetectably. The form of power encouraged is personal power. If time and space biased media overcame limitations of distance and duration, then a digital media bias overcomes other people’s tastes, concerns—and perhaps their property rights.
“Prosumer” is a label applied to the effects of the Web 2.0 culture that enables the traditional passive consumer to become actively engaged in designing or customizing products. “Recent technological developments have created a wave of user-generated content in which pre-existing sounds and images are appropriated, reshaped, and shared with unprecedented ease” (Bennett, 2009). William Gibson has argued that the norm is changing so that in the realm of audio recordings, it is the record, not the remix, that has become an anomaly. “The remix is the very nature of the digital. Today, an endless, recombinant, and fundamentally social process generates countless hours of creative product” (Gibson, 2005, p.118).
Lawrence Lessig argued that analog technology supported a Read Only (RO) culture in which one passively consumes information or other product provided by a “professional” source—the content industry. But digital technology supports a Read/Write (RW) culture with an inherent reciprocal relationship between the producer and the consumer (2009).
So, is it plagiarism when creators use sampling and different types of remixes (extended, selective and reflexive)? According to technologist and blogger Andy Baio:
Cut, copy, paste. The ability to reuse and remix is so deeply baked into our tools, it’s rewritten our culture. We learn to make great art by copying, and we participate in our culture by reusing and modifying what we see. But the law hasn’t caught up with our changing values, effectively criminalizing the creativity of millions. Cover songs on YouTube, fanfic, mashups, and supercuts all violate copyright, and lawyers are starting to find new tools to discover and enforce infringement. Welcome to the new Prohibition (Baio, 2011).
Variations on mashups which aggregate and pull together third-party content include regressive (juxtaposition of content to create something new) and reflexive mashups (using samples from two or more sources) are commonplace. The fundamental issue becomes whether a work is derivative or transformative with regard to the original.
Baio assumes that values (what is deemed ethical) have already changed and it is the law that needs to catch up. Is this really the new reality?
The conceptualization of theft and stealing has changed over time, as noted in the New York Times opinion piece “When Stealing isn’t Stealing” by Stuart Green, the author of 13 Ways to Steal a Bicycle: Theft Law in the Information Age (2012).
The problem is that most people simply don’t buy the claim that illegally downloading a song or video from the Internet really is like stealing a car…lay observers draw a sharp moral distinction between file sharing and genuine theft, even when the value of the property is the same.
So what are the lessons in all this? For starters, we should stop trying to shoehorn the 21st-century problem of illegal downloading into a moral and legal regime that was developed with a pre- or mid-20th-century economy in mind. Second, we should recognize that the criminal law is least effective—and least legitimate—when it is at odds with widely held moral intuitions (2012).
Plagiarism vs. Piracy
Digitalization and piracy has received a good deal of attention, while digitalization and plagiarism has been neglected.
Plagiarism has been defined by the 2014 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as stealing and passing off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own; to use (another's production) without crediting the source; to commit literary theft; to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. By definition, copying or borrowing without giving credit is encompassed in a traditional conceptualization of plagiarism. Likewise, obtaining the content by downloading from an Internet site is no different than copying out of a book, magazine, newspaper or other pre-digital medium. The key factor is whether there is or isn’t an attempt to pass off this content as one’s own work. Most guidelines and codes of ethics refer negatively to rearranging the order of ideas to create the impression of original authorship, borrowing ideas without proper credit given to the source, and even double-dipping into one’s own previously published works.
In the digital era we often hear “plagiarism” and “piracy” equated or piracy is seen as a form of plagiarism. But piracy, in commerce (rather than on the high seas) originally meant copying an item and then selling the copy or, more generally, the unauthorized reproduction and distribution of goods—especially goods whose design is identifiable.
From a U. S. legal perspective plagiarism and piracy are merely different forms of copyright infringement, with differentiation of the two somewhat difficult. The “Web has changed the importance of these very different types of wrongs” (Snapper, 1999). One can plagiarize without infringing copyright. For example, taking a literary classic in the public domain and placing your name on a copy of significant portions of it is not a copyright infringement but it is definitely plagiarizing. Piracy is a form of copyright infringement, when redistribution (sharing or selling copies) without permission is involved. It has been argued that digital publication diminishes the significance of piracy and heightens the need for protections against plagiarism. Digitalization reduces costs of production and therefore there is a need for fewer copyright protections, while plagiarism is the failure to abide by scholarly standards for citation of sources, so it becomes more important to have clear standards for verifying the source of all information one publishes or otherwise distributes (Snapper, 1999).
Technology facilitates and tempts one to “borrow,” while simultaneously supplying the means to build digital traps to catch plagiarists. When downloading and remixing are considered normal behavior, traditional conceptions of plagiarism may look pretty silly. While copyright laws may appear futile (Lessig), maintaining ethical standards requiring originality and attribution does not. Legal enforcement has become ineffectual, making the pragmatic appeal of the shift in copyright law attractive. The value placed on intellectual property rights may well be shifting, yet the importance of creativity and acknowledgement endures. The transformativeness test to determine fair use in copyright law has developed in recent years with courts looking for significant value added to the original by adding new information, insights, or new aesthetics. Creativity still counts. Copyright protection is supposed to encourage artistic progress through creation and dissemination of creative works. The old goal of stimulating creation of new works remains in the developing protections of transformative works. In the end, plagiarism is a form of cheating that may or may not have a deleterious impact. For the digital generation the keystone is the matter of creativity. The judgment hinges upon the relationship of intent and resultant creativity.
- Susan J. Drucker is a Professor in the Department of Journalism/Media Studies, School of Communication, Hofstra University where she teaches media, law and ethics. She is an attorney and serves as Series editor of the Communication and Law series for Peter Lang Publishing.
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