Plagiarism is an easy sin to commit

Melania Trump

Melania Trump

If you’re searching for a text book definition of plagiarism, look no further than the controversy surrounding Melania Trump’s speech to the 2016 Republican National Convention. The commonality of language, structure and ideas between Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech and Trump’s speech are too striking to be coincidental.

Committing plagiarism is very easy to do. Sometimes plagiarism is overt. Copying text word-for-word without citation is blatant and obvious. It can be more subtle, however, with small changes made in an effort to create a new work inspired by another’s words. On occasion plagiarism can be accidental, when a writer subconsciously borrows from another work without realizing it.

This example is definitely an overt case of plagiarism. Copying a few words or phrases might be accidental. Borrowing an entire paragraph is difficult to do on accident. So how does this happen?

When writing a major address for someone such as a potential future First Lady of the United States, it would certainly be in practice for a speechwriter to study past convention speeches by spouses for inspiration.

When a writer stumbles across a speech excerpt they like, it’s natural to try to emulate it. Many great speeches contain call backs to other literary works. Writers are inspired by one another. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once wrote, “Good writers borrow from other writers. Greater writers steal from them outright.” Search that quote on Google and you’ll never know for sure what greater writer said that first.

A speechwriter on a deadline, or an inexperienced speechwriter, may take shortcuts. One shortcut is to copy and paste the text you want recreate and tweak it. The conventional wisdom is that it’s not plagiarism so long as you don’t copy five consecutive words. That’s a rule taught to high school students writing a history paper, but it’s not true for professional writers.

In this case, the original text from Obama has been altered to fit Trump’s experience and voice. There are excerpts where well more than five words are copied verbatim, which would violate even the loosest definition of plagiarism.

Once text is copied and pasted, there is no telling what can happen next. It’s why you should never do it. Even if your intent is to rewrite the selection in your own voice, what happens if you forget?

No one commits plagiarism with the expectation of being caught. But it seems particularly brazen — or naive — to think no one would make the connection between these two speeches. It would appear to me that the writer of the borrowed text was either inexperienced, lazy or both.

Plagiarizing a speech is not necessarily a disqualifying factor in American politics, but the punishment can linger. Vice President Joe Biden’s 1988 presidential bid was derailed by a plagiarism scandal that lingered for decades. He did not make another presidential bid for 20 years, and yet the issue still lingered. It did not, however, stop Barack Obama from selecting him as his vice president.

The aftermath of the Trump plagiarism will likely be short-lived. If the campaign is smart, they will make a mea culpa and the speechwriter will take the responsibility. If Trump was the plagiarist herself, an apology should suffice and the story becomes a faded memory in a few days. The only lasting fallout is if the campaign denies the plagiarism charge and tries to blame the media for overreacting.

The lesson learned from this episode is to be careful with using the works of others as your own. It is much too easy to commit plagiarism, and the price you pay isn’t worth it. Be authentic. Put your feelings into your own words. If you’re not confident in your own language and grammar skills, rely on someone you trust to help.

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