Authenticity without Originality?

In creative commons, creativity, culture by Michael Tiemann

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.