Remixing the Works of Others into Best-Sellers?

Saw a very interesting article the other day over on Techdirt regarding a teenager who remixed and or plagiarized the works of others into a best selling book which is up for a prestigious prize in Germany.  I’ll share some passages from the Techdirt article and then a few brief quotes from a New York Times story and leave you to make of it what you will.  Anyway, from the Techdirt article:

“Here’s a story that will get traditionalists up in arms about “stealing” and “laziness,” but they’ll all be missing the point. We’ve see for decades how remix culture works in music. The ability to take the works of someone else, mix them up with others, change them around and create something new and powerful, is a wonderful expression of culture, that shows how artistic culture is often about shared experiences and sharing works of art. But what about in the literary world?”

And here from the New York Times article:

“Ms. Hegemann finds herself in the middle of a collision — if not road kill exactly — between the staid, literary establishment in a country that venerates writers from Goethe to Mann to Grass, and the Berlin youth culture of D.J.’s and artists that sample freely and thereby breathe creativity into old forms.”

And also:

“Although Ms. Hegemann has apologized for not being more open about her sources, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new. “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity…”

Well, those quotes by themselves should be enough to generate some discussion but check out the full articles.  Interesting reading.  Have fun!

79 thoughts on “Remixing the Works of Others into Best-Sellers?

  1. Hmm some of what she took looks like it’s more folk tales.

    How would it be any different than “Ella Enchanted” or “Fairest”? :S

  2. We’ve got several concepts floating around: originality, authenticity, legitimacy, and honesty. Unfortunately, Ms. Hegemann doesn’t appear to demonstrate from any of them. On the other hand, you can give her credit for recycling.

    I think that the real question here is about the motives of the members of the jury for the book prize who are legitimizing what she did. They’re trying to be original by promoting her old-fashioned attempt at plaigarism as original work. Maybe they’ll start a trend. Maybe the future of art is collages from borrowed sources.

  3. Reading the (often shockingly selfish and/or ignorant) comments on the Techdirt article, it seems that one of the big arguments people are making is that, because the author (or “author”) created art, she had the right to plagiarize to do so.

    It could certainly be the case that what she created was art. It could certainly be the case that she created a mash-up, as it were, that used the original sources creatively and interestingly (think of something like “The Grey Album”).

    However, the creation of art is no excuse for plagiarism. I might want to paint a mural, but if I steal the paint, the ladder, the dropcloths and the brushes, I’m still a thief. And if I paint it on a wall I don’t own or don’t have permission to use, I’m still a trespasser and a vandal.

    Even if it’s the most “artistic” mural the world has ever seen….

  4. “she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across new and old media, to create something new”

    What? So it’s ok to steal across multiple media lines as long as you belong to a generation that condones it?

  5. Revgeorge— among several differences (such as actually citing your sources), I take it you’re not claiming that those quotes show your own skills as an ace reporter. 😉

    Though if this case sets a precedent, maybe I could “remix” Thomas Friedman and win a Pulitzer!

  6. Eric, no, not making any claims at all; just trying to push the point to encourage discussion. 😉

    Although, and I can’t remember where I read this, but some newspapers online would think it would be out of place to link to their articles without first paying them a fee. And before anybody thinks, well, that’s just plain ridiculous, remember all it takes is a bunch of politicians passing a law in order to make it so.

  7. revgeorge I think what Eric meant was that the example you cite, i.e. yourself, is not similar to the one we are talking about, since you did not pretend this was your news story. If you had claimed that you had firsthand knowledge of the events, or that you had talked to the principals, that you had done research instead of citing someone else’s work, then there would be a simalirity.

    I think that it’s your use of the word “original” that confuses the issue. That word means different things in faction vs journalism. Journalist do not create stories (well, they might, but we wouldn’t call that journalism). They find out what’s there and put it into written words. Original journalism is what happens when the first journalist senses there is a story to tell, and tells it. After that the second wave comes in. If they can find new facts, or perspectives, then they’re original too. If they just rehash the old stuff, not so much. If they just refer people to the old stuff, then it’s not journalism. It’s linking. Which is what you did.

  8. Thanks Steve, I’m quite sure now it was the New York Times story that I originally saw.

    Red Rocker said, “…I think what Eric meant was that the example you cite, i.e. yourself, is not similar to the one we are talking about…”

    Yes, I know. As I said, I’m just trying to push the issue. I think it would be quite clear cut if this girl took this other book, ripped the cover off, & replaced it with her own cover & her own name. But she didn’t. She took portions of another work & built her work around it. Do any of her arguments for doing so stand up in any way? Aside from the “we’re a different generation” garbage. That’s the least compelling of anything put forward.

    Specifically, what about this quote from the Techdirt article: “We’ve see for decades how remix culture works in music. The ability to take the works of someone else, mix them up with others, change them around and create something new and powerful, is a wonderful expression of culture, that shows how artistic culture is often about shared experiences and sharing works of art. But what about in the literary world?”

    Of course, I’m sure there’s still issues in the music world about remixes & sampling, with the lines of what’s fair use & what’s too much being startlingly unclear.

    Further, would this issue be cleared up if the author gave credit to the places where she used another’s work & royalties were then paid to that writer?

  9. I’m not that familiar with examples of remixes from the musical world. Is it like Brooker, Reid and Fisher’s Whiter Shade of Pale ? And how apropos that Fisher had to sue to get credit. Imagine the argument in court: “Your honour, Gary and Keith ripped off the Bach parts, but I’m the one who thought of ripping off Percy Sledge!”

    Can you give some examples of new and powerful remixes?

  10. Remixes in music that I know –

    Chopin – No. 2 Variations on La ci darem la mano from Don Giovanni for piano and orchestra
    Brahms – Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel
    Brahms – Variations on a theme by Haydn
    Benjamin Britten – Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell
    Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations

    Remixing is not a problem for me. I don’t believe the original theme is the “paint” in these works. They are called variations because they are different yet the same. I’m all for this idea crossing over into literary works. I don’t believe for one second that the guy who wrote the folk song about the ingestation of cabbage soup and the intestinal woes that come after said ingestation – minded at all that Bach turned his little ditty into the Goldberg Variations.

  11. Just to mix things up a bit, I would like to refer folks to an old article on the subject of the artist’s use of the past by T. S. Eliot called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” It is available many places online; Here’s one:

    The artist does more than create a mash up of the existing tradition, but rather redefines it, forcing us to rethink our whole experience of the tradition.

    It’s an old essay, but still food for thought.

  12. As far as I know, Ms. Hegemann didn’t just “remix” things from an already published small press book in her novel but also copied from the blog of the author of said book without asking or make a reference to his work. Her publisher’s comment was that they had asked her before publishing the book if she had used anybody else’s work in her own and her answer had been no. The next edition of “Axolotl” will apparently contain six pages of references. They will also publish this other guy’s book to make him more known.

    I don’t know what to think of all this. Of course nobody is writing in a vacuum, but literally copying parts of someone else’s work is still stealing in my book. But maybe I am just very old fashioned.

  13. Thanks for letting me know the extent of deception on Ms. Hegemann’s part, Minerva. That’s a sad commentary on the ethics of Ms. Hegemann. I do think if she had cited the works from the beginning – I would have been fine with it. But not to is just dumb. Did she think no one would notice? It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so maddeningly wrong. I mean – could you imagine Chopin trying to pass off Mozart’s Don Giovanni as his own? To quote Dr. Evil (notice I’m not passing this off as mine) –

    My father would womanize, he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark.

    Outrageous indeed!

  14. I admit that I was outraged when I first heard about this. But then, nowadays lots of people copy things from the Internet, for example homework for school, college or even university. So why not try and copy things to write a book? Maybe she thought nobody would notice because the book in question was rather obscure, but the thing is, with the Internet, someone will notice sooner or later. And a lot of people don’t seem to mind because “Axolotl” is still high up on the German Spiegel bestseller list.

  15. “My father would womanize, he would drink. He would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark.”

    Hang on! The truth is that I invented the question mark–one night while my girlfriend and I were enjoying some really good wine.

  16. I see a lot of justification and ambiguous morality here because her book is a success and therefore lucrative to her and her publisher.

  17. Variations on a theme, eh, Joivre?

    Oh well, I suppose. If you give due credit.

    I couldn’t place the reference to the intestinal difficulties attaching to the Goldberg variations, so of course I Googled it. Wikipedia says:

    The aria on which the variations are based was suggested by Arnold Schering not to have been written by Bach. More recent scholarly literature (such as the edition by Christoph Wolff) suggests that there is no basis for such doubts.

    but also:

    The aria is a sarabande in 3/4 time, and features a heavily ornamented melody:

    (Here it is, in case any one’s forgotten: )


    Peter Williams comments in Bach: The Goldberg Variations that this is not the theme at all, but actually the first variation (a view emphasising the idea of the work as a chaconne rather than a piece in true variation form).


    After a statement of the aria at the beginning of the piece, there are thirty variations. The variations do not follow the melody of the aria, but rather use its bass line and chord progression. Because of this the work is often said to be a chaconne.

    Not variations at all, but 100% Bach.

  18. You want examples of remixing? Here’s some remixing:

    “Although she has apologized for taking electronics from the store, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of merchandise across property lines, to obtain something new. ‘There’s no such thing as property anyway, just authenticity…'”

    “Although she has apologized for copying the answers from her classmates’ paper, she has also defended herself as the representative of a different generation, one that freely mixes and matches from the whirring flood of information across papers in the search for knowledge. ‘There’s no such thing as education anyway, just authenticity…'”

    I could go on; it’s actually kind of fun to make things sound legitimate with postmodern buzzwords. After reading Minerva’s article, though, it sounds to me like she’s just a clever girl who’s fallen in with the wrong crowd– literary critics. Poor thing.

  19. Very well put, Eric. And agree totally about the literary critics. If she’d been in school and this was an assignment, she’d be given a failing grade and have to make up for it with an original work.

  20. Red Rocker — If she was in my class, she’d be given a failing grade and not be given the opportunity to make it up.

    ..hmmmm… I think I’m going to go add something to my syllabi about plagiarism.

  21. I loved this line from the story Minerva linked to.

    “This is what has triggered Germany’s first major literary scandal of 2010.”

    How many major literary scandals do they expect to have in Germany this year?! 🙂

  22. Red – you caught my typo red-handed and hanging in the wind. What I omitted and intended to write was:

    I don’t believe for one second that the guy who wrote the folk song about the ingestation of cabbage soup and the intestinal woes that come after said ingestation – minded at all that Bach turned his little ditty into the Quodlibet from the Goldberg Variations.

    From Wikipedia –

    Variatio 30. Quodlibet. a 1 Clav.

    The Quodlibet as it appears in the first editionThis quodlibet is based on multiple German folk songs,[12] two of which are Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her (“I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”). The others have been forgotten.[13] Bach’s biographer Forkel explains the Quodlibet by invoking a custom observed at Bach family reunions (Bach’s relatives were almost all musicians):

    As soon as they were assembled a chorale was first struck up. From this devout beginning they proceeded to jokes which were frequently in strong contrast. That is, they then sang popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment. … This kind of improvised harmonizing they called a Quodlibet, and not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.

    Forkel’s anecdote (which is likely to be true, given that he was able to interview Bach’s sons), suggests fairly clearly that Bach meant the Quodlibet to be a joke.

    Good research though! And interesting tidbits about the aria.

  23. So I looked up the cabbage and turnip variation. And found there an answer to one of my questions:

    Bach’s use of the quodlibet in ‘Variatio 30’ of the Goldberg Variations BWV 988 in many ways does not conform to the usual definition of ‘quodlibet.’ Bach, ever the innovator, goes beyond the limitations of the established form and function of the quodlibet and elevates it to new heights far beyond the usual inane, non-sequitur combination of incipits and snippets derived from popular folksongs and presented as humorous entertainment. (This from Thomas Braatz, musicologist)

    When Bach remixed cabbages and turnips he elevated the established form to new heights far beyond the usual inane (are you listening Ms. Hegemann?), non-sequitor combination of snippets.

  24. Just some thoughts on snippets from the article Minerva linked to.

    “Were it merely a question of plagiarism, the controversy would never have blown up to these proportions.”

    Uh, in the real world most of us live in, it is a question of plagiarism.

    “…she has published a novel of astonishing depth and thematic breadth for someone who is just 17 years old. What’s more, her age has lent her extra credibility. “Axolotl Roadkill” is about a 16-year-old young woman rebelling against the impossibility of rebelling.”

    If the part of her work which wasn’t taken from Airen is of astonishing depth & thematic breadth, then she should’ve had the talent to create all of the book rather than using someone else’s material.

    And rebelling against the impossibility of rebelling? Please, isn’t there a little bit of age myopia going on here?

    “It is therefore somewhat ironic that Airen likes the novel. ‘”Axolotl” is full of interesting sections,’ he says. ‘There was really no need for her to copy me. But she borrowed entire passages of dialogue. I feel like my copyright has been infringed.'”

    Not much needs to be said about this. She didn’t need to copy him, and even if she did, there was no reason she couldn’t have & should have asked permission.

    “So, in this case, is it theft or an act of homage to plagiarize sentences? Is it ‘remixing’ or is it just stealing?”

    Even in remixing, credit is usually given to the original source. And one can’t just lift portions of songs to use in your own song without permission. Ask The Verve or Vanilla Ice about that.

    “For Airen and the Sukultur publishing house, the situation is simple. ‘We want to make it clear that “Strobo” is one of many elements which make up “Axolotl Roadkill.” That has to be recognized and valued,” says Anja Maleu.

    That’s exactly what the Ullstein publishing house wants to do. Future editions of ‘Axolotl Roadkill’ will contain a list of sources. The American author Kathy Acker will be mentioned, as will American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and private correspondence — and Airen, in the form of both his blog and his book.”

    There was absolutely no reason this couldn’t have been done to begin with.

    “Airen has already been added to the book’s acknowledgements. Hegemann admits it was a mistake not to have mentioned him from the outset. But she insists she corrected the mistake before the scandal broke and the accusations against her began. But she doesn’t think she did anything wrong.”

    Just plain sad. Doesn’t sound like she’s learned anything at all, except how to do cya.

  25. revgeorge, there was another (minor) case of plagiarism this year already, but the book wasn’t a bestseller and the publisher took it from the market when they learned about the plagiarism.
    I discussed Hegemann’s case with a friend who is the mother of an 18 year old son and she said she would be scandalized if she found out her son had written a book full of graphic language like Axolotl. We then wondered who had signed Hegemann’s publisher’s contract because she wasn’t of age when the book came out. Her proud father?

  26. I don’t think graphic language would scandalize me so much. I probably would not enjoy reading it though. I started to read another thorny-issue plagued book, A Million Little Pieces, and that was filled to the brim with language that was blue. But that gets old real quick. The shock value lessens with each paragraph and it starts to feel like a series of dull thuds. It bored me because the language was so limited. So – I put that one down before I finished it.

    I found the article interesting about Ms. Hegemann’s reaction. Poor thing, she is so young and ignorant and defensive. I was a complete idiot at her age (now?only partial 😉 ) I really hope that she does learn from this – and I do hope that she becomes a first-rate author worthy of her fame. I really do hope she will open her mind and let her defenses down so that she will grow.

    And by the way – to prove my idiocy has not completely left me – it’s ingestion – not ingestation. Although I’m sure those themes gestated in the composer’s heads for awhile – that’s not what I meant.

    And yes Red, the Quodlibet is better than it’s source. But that’s not always the case in musical variations. And I don’t think it’s necessary to better or best a theme written by someone else. It’s not a competition – it’s expression. I don’t listen to Chopin’s variations and think – gee, this is better than Mozart’s aria. They’re different beasts and I love them both for what they are. I think it’s interesting though that composers have quoted other composer’s many times in their works. It’s an homage to the original composer most of the time. Before copyright laws – it wasn’t necessary to quote your source. Even Mozart put in passages of other composers without citing them – it’s not like he was passing the themes off as his own – he just thought that surely the listener would hear the theme pop out and would automatically know where it came from. These quotes usually had double meaning and were sometimes in-jokes. He never played down to his audience and expected them to be musically savvy.

  27. I think that people can justify any act they want to – or need to. History is full of much worse instances of people doing bad things and finding seemingly good reasons for their actions. In this case, you don’t need to look too far to understand the motives of Hegemann, her publishers, and the book award jury. The trick is to recognize that their justifications are excuses for what they know to be a transgression.

    In the late 50s, Matza and Sykes came up with the idea that law abiding people use typical rationalizations when they know they’ve transgressed. So for example, someone who cheats on a term paper – or steals wholesale from someone else’s book – might argue that no one got hurt, that they were under a lot of pressure, that they would have come up with the same work if they had more time. In effect, all these excuses are ways of saying that what they did wasn’t really wrong. Matza and Sykes originally applied this to juvenile delinquents, but eventually broadened it to include adults.

    We can see some of these in this case: presenting someone else’s work as your own is ok because others do it, because it’s acceptable in other circumstances (“remixing”) because the rules have changed, because copyright rules are old fashioned and no longer apply. But the interesting thing is they go one step further: they present the old wrong as the new right: not only is it ok, it’s desirable to steal from others. Except it’s not really stealing, it’s a new art form.

  28. That’s interesting Red Rocker about the Techniques of Neutralization. Do you believe that even if she had cited her sources prior to publication that this would be “stealing”? And if she has formerly apologized and corrected her books to include the sources, paid her sources, obtained permission to use the material and stated her determination not to do this again – that this is still “stealing”?

    And if there are more authors who drop in direct word-for-word passages of other authors – though do obtain permission from the authors and cite their sources at the end of the book – do you regard this as “stealing”? Could it be a new art form?

  29. It’s not the apology that’s the issue: it’s giving credit where it’s due – and not passing off someone else’s work as your own.

    I was interested in your point that Mozart et al “knew” that their audiences would “know” when they used someone else’s musical work. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. It’s still not right without formal acknowledgement. And permission, when it’s appropriate (meaning the copyright is still active).

    As for something being a new art form: wasn’t there a Czech composer who penned 10 minutes of silence and called it music? Did anyone actually “play” his work, do you know? I think anyone can write or say or do anything (wrapping buildings in fabric) and call it art. I for one don’t believe that there is a formal definition of art so that any of us can say: yes, this is art; no, this is not. I don’t think it’s a formal process either. On the other hand, I don’t think calling something “art” makes it so either.

    I do think there is an important question somewhere in there, which Hegemann et al have obscured with their claims that her pastiche is an authentic expression of creativity. For me the question is how new or original does a work need to be before we can reasonably absolve the artist from the requirement of citing her sources? At what point does something stop being a remix, collage, pastiche or a collage, and start having its own distinct identity?

  30. Joivre: And if there are more authors who drop in direct word-for-word passages of other authors – though do obtain permission from the authors and cite their sources at the end of the book – do you regard this as “stealing”? Could it be a new art form?”

    Not new at all. Artists have been doing this for generations. Visual artists, for example, have borrowed endlessly on the imagery and themes of Dante. Michaelangelo’s Last Judgment is just one example.

    Is J. K. Rowling plagiarizing when she uses the imagery of Theseus descending into the Labyrinth?

    I don’t think we can judge, without close examination, whether something is a cheap knock off or a genuine re-interpretation of the tradition.

  31. Quite true wordsaremagic. Red Rocker – I am in complete agreement that today acknowledging direct sources is du rigeur. And I am in no way excusing what the author did. I said before I think it’s outrageous. What I don’t have a problem with is copying word for word a passage as part of one’s own work. I personally might find it boring and won’t like it or I might find it illuminating and brilliant. Also- I think I have a much more strict definition of art.

    Whatever one thinks is art – is art.

    4’33 by American composer John Cage is music. And yes – just because he says so. By the way – it is not silence (though many believe that) it is Cage’s emphasis that any sound, be it instrumental, vocal, birds singing, wind, coughing, rustling of clothes, a dog’s bark, sniffles, are legitmate sounds that can be used for music. And yes – it debuted at Woodstock in the 50’s and I’ve heard it many times since in person. It’s one of the most famous pieces of music in the world that still draws ire among many who don’t understand it.

    In today’s world giving credit where credit is due is a given. In the world of Mozart and Brahms – no. And besides Mozart and Brahms didn’t need anyone else’s work to enhance their own reputations. The analogy doesn’t really fit here. They did it as an homage. Henneger did it on the sly for her own enhancement. Stupid.

  32. I was referring to Erwin Schulhoff, who died in 1942 in a Nazi concentration camp:

    Later, during his Dadaist phase, Schulhoff composed a number of pieces with absurdist elements; notable among these is “In futurum” (from the Fünf Pittoresken for piano) — a completely silent piece made up entirely of rests that anticipates John Cage’s 4?33? by over thirty years.[2] (Schulhoff’s work is itself predated by Alphonse Allais’s Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, written in 1897; unlike Allais’s and Cage’s pieces, however, Schulhoff’s composition is notated in great rhythmic detail, and employs bizarre time signatures and intricate, though silent, rhythmic patterns.)

    The problem with defining art in that way, Joivre, i.e. by saying that whatever I think of as art is art, is that it becomes a totally subjective experience. And why not, you say, since the experience of art is entirely subjective? I don’t know. Seems to me that there is a qualitative difference between the folk song Greensleeves and Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia, Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman and K265 /300e, not to mention the cabbages and rutabagas and the Quodlibet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s possible to say with any certainty what is and is not art, but surely there’s more to it than what turns my crank.

  33. Wow! I forgot about In futurum! You are a learned and sophisticated man of music Red Rocker. I wonder if there’s a current recording of it I could listen to! 😉

    But – art. No really – there’s nothing more to it than what turns your crank!!!! That’s the best definition I’ve seen so far. Art is art. Who am I to say to absolutely anyone who creates something and calls it art – that it’s not art. What gall it would take to shoot down someone’s expression of their soul. What hubris and arrogance for me not to say that plates painted with pussy cats is not art.

    Now – I’m not saying all art is equal in subjective and collective quality. You are right in that the quality of Art can be judged. I look at art like I look at a person – I like Mother Theresa more than I like Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean Donald Trump isn’t a person. And so – I like Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 more than I like Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. That doesn’t mean Piss Christ isn’t art. Offensive – yes, but art nonetheless. (and considered to be great art by not a few in art circles)

  34. Oho! as Slughorn would say. So it’s all art, but some art is better than other art?

    Going for a continuous variable rather than a dichotomous one really changes the nature of the debate. Sure, then, we’ll call it all art – Ms. Hegemann’s cut-and-paste efforts included. But we’ll still have to look for a term to capture what distinguishes the cabbages and turnips from the Quodlibet.

    In the meantime, don’t be so easily impressed by poseurs and dilettantes, Joivre: I read about Schulhoff in a book once; I garnered the rest from Wikipedia.

  35. Exactly! He’s deconstructing the pieces in front of us and that’s fascinating and exciting to me. Also – this playfulness throughout the recording session endears me to him. This is the work he is most identified with – and I always pictured a more serious session in my mind. But his childlike enthusiasm mixed with this brilliantly quick mind impresses upon me that art is a curious and fun journey. I love when he blurts out “More practice is in order.”

    Does anyone in this world have a faster trill? Amazing.

    Also – did you notice – he’s splicing together that variation. Have you ever heard any of Gould’s radio documentaries? Talk about remixing! He interviews people then splices them together in the form of a fugue. A new art form! 😉

  36. There’s remixing and remixing.

    When it’s a homage to the original work, when the statement is about the original work, when the spirit of the original work is the focus of the exercise, when the remixing is a comment on the original work, then I’m all for remixing. Listening to Gould play and play with Bach increases my understanding of Bach.

    When the remixing tries to elevate itself beyond the original work, – without adding anything original – then I think its pretentious, derivative clap trap. Listening to a Whiter Shade of Pale makes me ashamed to enjoy the bits of buried Bach. BTW, Wikipedia says that not even the title of the song was original: Keith Reid claimed that he overheard the title during a party.

  37. Ooh, it seems I missed a lot here! A few quick points:

    – Mentioning Bach and quodlibets reminded me of a spectacular classical “remix” (to hilarious comic effect) by Peter Schickele: May I present “Eine Kleine Nichtmusik.” [I think that’s the right link…]

    – I like Joivre’s broad definition of art to a point– the point being that it’s always tough to say something presented as art is “not art.” However, I have to paraphrase Syndrome from The Incredibles: “If everything’s art, then nothing is.”

    – I can’t wait to get to a computer with speakers so I can hear me some Glenn Gould! 🙂

  38. ROTFL!!!! Eric – that’s the best Quodlibet I’ve ever heard! Mozart would be proud.

    For those who don’t know about P.D.Q. Bach – he is the twenty first of Bach’s twenty children –

    Professor Schickele describes P. D. Q. Bach as having “the originality of Johann Christian, the arrogance of Carl Philipp Emanuel, and the obscurity of Johann Christoph Friedrich.” The most distinguishing feature of P. D. Q. Bach’s music, in the words of Schickele, is “manic plagiarism”.

    How apt for this thread!

  39. Joivre:“I don’t think graphic language would scandalize me so much. I probably would not enjoy reading it though.”

    Joivre, you are right. I realized I chose the wrong English word. Graphic language would just bore me, too, but not shock me. I meant that “Axolotl” was full of profanities and bad language, variations of the “f”-word and such. This would bore me as well, but I also find it rather off-putting. If handled well, it can be funny, but that’s rare. I admit I enjoyed the movie “In Bruges” very much, and it makes ample use of the f-word. I know, I am not very consistent. 😉

  40. I agree Minerva – profanity is like salt, too much and it spoils the dish.

    You know what? I don’t really care about Whiter Shade of Pale using Bach. I know, I know. They ripped off Bach (although I don’t really hear a very direct quote in it). But here’s how I see it – Bach is long dead and gone and it’s not an issue of copywrite for Herr Bach any longer. The song is tripe. It’s nothing really in the large scheme of things. They couldn’t touch Bach in a million years. Bach is big. Bach is so huge. Bach is like Jesus Christ in a way – you can strip him, beat him, spit on him, not believe in him, humiliate him, even crucify him – and Bach will rise again. Bach will be around until the sun swallows the earth – Whiter Shade of Pale will not even be a blip.

  41. Granted Bach is bigger than Procol Harum – although there’s probably a generation of stoners who think Whiter Shade of Pale is Divine Revelation. Granted Procol Harum couldn’t take anything away from Bach. There is still something wrong that happened, an injustice – a theft actually, committed by one Mr. Brooker from one Mr. Bach. It’s a theft that is repeated every time the song is played and someone enjoys the music and thinks: Whiter Shade of Pale. It’s a theft because what makes the song beautiful comes not from Mr. Brooker, but from Mr. Bach. Take away the haunting countermelody which Wikipedia says is based on cantata #140, take away the melody based on “a few borrowed bars” of an Air on the G string, what do you have left? Some very, very silly lyrics attached to a catchy refrain. I believe that what is happening here is theft of beauty.

    It is quite ironic, of course, that Mr. Brooker stole “a few bars” from the Air on the G String. Because that piece of music was itself an adaptation for violoin and piano by violinist August Wilhelmj of the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 3 in D major. Unlike Mr. Brooker, however, not only did Mr. Wilhelmj give credit where it was due, he maintained the integrity of the piece, it’s “Bachness” while bringing out its beauty.

    As you can tell, I have strong feelings about this.

  42. As you can tell, I have strong feelings about this.

    Yes – and I respect your feelings about it. And the logical and ethical reasons for your feelings.

    I know that Bach is glad that you’ve got his back.

  43. Love Whiter Shade of Pale! Here’s what I found on wikipedia regarding the Bach flap: “The Hammond organ line of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Sleepers, Wake!” and “Air on a G String”, but contrary to popular belief, the song is not a direct copy or paraphrase of any music by Bach,”

  44. WSoP does not copy Bach directly for more than a few bars from Orchestral Suite #3. But listen to the Suite and Cantata #140 And then listen to WSoP. And tell me what you think is going on.

    Here are the links for all three works, and also for Air on a G String

    You be the judge.

  45. Well – technically yes, revgeorge – it isn’t a direct quote – they changed one note. Let’s say I changed one note of the national anthem – I don’t think it would be unrecognizable as the national anthem.

  46. If that’s the case, then why is the wikipedia article so clear cut about it not being a copy or even a paraphrase? I don’t know the answer; I’m just curious why some people seem to think it’s an almost direct copy from Bach, like changing one note in the National Anthem & why others think there’s no copying involved at all.

    Frankly, I can’t see how musicians make music anyway. There’s only so many cords & combinations of those cords. How can anybody possibly avoid ever incorporating, intentionally or unintentionally, even the slightest hint of someone else’s previous music into a new work?

  47. I’m not concerned with what I think of the matter. I’m asking questions of why others think the way they do. Always a dangerous & iffy occupation. If it’s so clear cut as you claim, then I don’t see how someone can claim there’s no copying going on at all. But then human rationality is always an iffy thing too. 🙂

  48. You hit the nail on the head Revgeorge. There are only 12 notes in the diatonic scale – so it’s bound to happen that someone is going to come real close to copying someone else. But – chordally it’s a different case. Many Jazz musicians (Dizzy Gillespie and his cohorts – for one example) would take the chord progressions from already established songs and then create new melodies on top. Not only did they create beautiful music – but they avoided copyright issues.

    It’s very hard to prove in court that you have deliberately copied someone else’s work. But that’s not the point. Copyright for musicians ends after 50 years. ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Publishers) cannot pursue legal claims to royalties after a composer has been dead for 50 years – so Bach is public domain.

    Some people think the point is – whether it’s legal or not – it desecrates the work in a way. And while I see their point – I feel the music done by the great masters is indestructable. But believe me – I get really angry inside whenever someone takes the music of Beethoven and slaps it onto imbecilic movie images. And I can see why Red doesn’t like to hear Wachet Auf over a stoner ditty.

  49. Boy – those links really drive home the point RR.

    Bach’s music is so beautiful, that it seems like it comes from another universe.

  50. “Bach’s music is so beautiful, that it seems like it comes from another universe.”

    Is that why he appended SDG (soli deo gloria) to his manuscripts?

  51. revgeorge, if you truly wish to understand why others – for example, me – think and feel the way they do, you’re going to have to examine the evidence. Which means listening to the music.

  52. I’m not having trouble understanding why you think & feel the way you do about the song; it’s the other people who think there’s no copying going on I want to understand.

    BTW, I did listen to it all. Certainly there’s some similarity, but I hear similarities in music all the time. Is it outright copying? I’d have to listen to it a fair few more times to even make a guess at that. Anyway, I still like Whiter Shade of Pale.

  53. I can only guess why others think as they do – that there is no direct copying or paraphrasing of Bach in PSoW

    First of all, they are mostly right – there are only a few bars which are the same, note for note.

    Also, what Joivre said: if I take someone else’s music but change a note here and a note there, is it still their work?

    Take a look at this piece of crap:

    Should I compare you to a summer’s breeze?
    Thou art much sweeter and more melodious
    Rough are May’s winds which lilac buds can freeze
    And hot summer nights are most tedious

    This isn’t stealing, is it? How many of the words match the original?

    The point is, something doesn’t have to be word for word – or note for note – exactly the same to be a pretty close copy of the original.

    Also, familiarity is a factor. If you are familiar with Bach’s music, you’re going to see more similarities than if you’re not. If you’re not familiar with his work, then something like WSoP will seem original to you. I think which you are exposed to first might have an effect as well.

    But ultimately, I have no answer to your question, revgeorge. You shall have to ask the people who do not see the similarities.

    BTW, as far as liking goes, I like WSoP too. That’s part of the problem. I know I like it because of my love of Bach. And that really makes me mad.

  54. Revgeorge – I really feel bad that I can’t give you a better understanding. I could do a complete harmonic analysis along with a comparative intervalic analysis for you – but then we would have to be in the same room with a very large chalk board. And if you understood it – Juilliard would have to award you a Master of Music degree. Maybe Eric P. can explain it better than I. Hey – Eric P. where are you?

    But for now we’ll have to go with the elephant test –

    The term elephant test refers to situations in which an idea or thing “is hard to describe, but instantly recognizable when spotted”.

    The term is often used in legal cases when there is an issue which may be open to interpretation, such as in the case of Cadogan Estates Ltd v Morris, when Lord Justice Stuart-Smith referred to “the well known elephant test. It is difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it”.

  55. Joivre, yes, I’m well aware of the elephant test. That’s what makes so much of these copyright & intellectual property issues so maddening. It’s all subjective & the law is based on the whims of judges.

    Red Rocker, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t necessarily disagree with you.

  56. Whoever fixed the extended bold font on my last comment (#68) thank you: I hate having to look at my own mistakes.

  57. Ah – the truth outs.

    Actually – though I offered the elephant test – that does not mean that music can not be measured by scientific fact. Music follows the same laws of physics and math that science does. Intervals can be compared, sound waves can be taken, rhythm can be mathematically measured. When stripped down to it’s bones – with no humanity involved – there really is nothing subjective about it. It is a collection of sounds, in a certain order, occurring in certain spaces in time.

    This conversation is getting pretty heady. I love it when threads wake up out of nowhere.

  58. Red Rocker, you’re welcome.

    Joivre, ah, but we would really want music without humanity? As Dumbledore said, “Ah music! A magic beyond anything we do here!”

  59. Point taken and agreed with Revgeorge.

    Yes Wordsaremagic, where I work – we are very, very lucky to have one of the few complete Bach Gesellschaftswerkes on the West Coast. On every single one of those compositions, from the lowliest prelude to the greatest majesties of his oratorios – Bach showed with those letters that he composed only for the glory of God.

    Interesting how in the same year that Bach was born, only a few miles away another baby was born – this boy also became a great composer. The differences between the two are startling, one Catholic, one Lutheran, one travelled, the other stayed close to home, one famous, the other not well-known outside local circles, one composed Operas, one composed Operas for God, one composed for the glory of God, the other for his own glory.

    Bach and Handel were so different! I love them both.

  60. Eric P. is bereft of a functional internet connection at home and isn’t allowed to stream audio at work (not to mention being absurdly busy), but is following the resurgent thread with interest. Then again, I doubt whether I could analyze anything for you anyway without a big chalkboard and cryptic symbols myself…

    Thus handicapped, I can only offer my $0.02 without hearing the piece in question. (On the plus side, that makes me objective…) One of my favorite bands ever, Pink Martini, occasionally peppers their songs with quotations from Chopin or other composers–one memorable number incorporates snatches of both the “Flower Duet” and “My Darling Clementine.” What makes it work (I think) is that it would still be a good song without the allusions; they’re just there to add a wink and a bit of sparkle. In other words, they don’t depend on Chopin to come up with their ideas for them. They just tip him a deferential nod.

    Or for an example in another medium, the other day while editing I caught an article that had been taken nearly verbatim (with a few alterations) from a published academic article–which the writer formally cited in their bibliography as a “source.” No way Jose; that’s cheating. On the other hand, citing an authority’s words to support your own point adds a bit of depth to your research when it’s done sparingly.

    If only I could hear the song in question, I’d tell you which I thought it was… alas, welladay and all that.

  61. Eric, you could drive around in your car, alternating between NPR & a classic oldies stations. Eventually you’ll hear all three pieces referenced… 😉

  62. I think what’s lost sometimes in all this talk of copyright & intellectual property is the fact that there are some people who seem to want to draw the lines too narrowly.

    After all, if the MPAA had its way, we would not have VHS or DVR or Tivo or DVD’s or the ability to buy movies off the Internet & play them on our computers. If the RIAA had its way we would not have had cassettes, CD’s, ipods, mp3 players, iTunes, the ability to play our music on our computers or to copy our music we bought. The publishing industry I’m sure would love to destroy all used book stores, & they’re currently in the process of trying to destroy the ebook industry.

    Two stories to illustrate the point: The first is about the FCC giving the MPAA permission to fiddle around with your DVR.

    The second is about an Irish music agency which wants hotels to pay a 1 euro per room per week fee because people could listen to copyrighted music on the radios & TV’s that are provided in room.

  63. More stories on this subject. One about how content creators need to move beyond suing their fans. You can find it here. A brief snippet from it:

    “Independent filmmaking is extraordinarily challenging, and part of the challenge is getting compensated for your hard work. But the lessons from litigation in the music space could not be more clear: suing your fans is no way to meet that challenge.”

    Another is on what the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) being proposed would really do. Here’s a snippet:

    “First, it is not just about trademarks; it covers copyright, potentially patents, and all other forms of intellectual property. Second, it’s not just about physical goods. It’s all about the Internet — which it targets very specifically — and citizens’ ability to use it to communicate, collaborate and create. ACTA contains new potential obligations for Internet intermediaries, requiring them to police the Internet and their users, which in turn pose significant concerns for citizens’ privacy, freedom of expression and fair use rights.”

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