When is Plagiarism Actually Plagiarism?


By now you’ve heard about the plagiarism controversy involving the wife of Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention. But when is plagiarism really plagiarism?

When I woke up Tuesday morning and turned on the morning news, I immediately heard that people were complaining that Melania Trump had copied a speech given by Michelle Obama.

I had two immediate reactions.

The first was to roll my eyes, thinking that it shouldn’t be remotely surprising that someone was criticizing Trump, just as the other side will criticize the Clintons during the Democratic National Convention. It’s part of the game, after all.

The second reaction was to roll my eyes, thinking how ludicrous it would be for the wife of a GOP candidate to copy a speech given by — of all people — a Democratic first lady. It’s such an outrageous idea that it’s laughable on the surface.

A little while later, I saw the video. It was a split-screen video featuring Obama on the left and Trump on the right. Obama’s side of the picture would play and we’d hear a snippet of her speech. Then that side would freeze and Trump’s side would play and we’d hear a snippet of her speech.

When I watched that video, I was honestly shocked.

It wasn’t that the speeches were similar. They struck me as nearly word for word.


OBAMA: And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.

TRUMP: From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily lives.

Then consider:

OBAMA: And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and to pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nationto know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

TRUMP: That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.

I’ve emphasized passages that are identical to each other just to make it a bit easier to see.

Before we go further, let’s consider the definition of plagiarism, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person.”

In the second pair, it’s clear there are extra words and alternate words in Trump’s version. Still, the organization of the sentence is very similar.

But it’s that first pair that really, really makes the plagiarism idea seem plausible over the notion that it somehow a big “coincidence.”

A colleague of mine today posted a flowchart from Poynter that serves as a test to determine whether a piece of work is plagiarism.

The first question in the chart reads, “Is some of the language in the article copied from another source?” Well, in that first pair, there’s definitely a string of words that appear to be copied verbatim.

That takes us to the second question: “Is the language attributed to the original source?” No.

The third question: “Is the string of unattributed language more than 7-10 words in one sentence?” That’s the one that really raises the eyebrow. A “yes” answer here leads to a verdict of plagiarism according to that chart.

There’s a 22-word stretch that is identical.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday that her speech couldn’t be plagiarism since “93% of it is completely different” than Obama’s speech.

No one was saying the entire speech was identical.

The issue isn’t what Christie calls that 93%.

The issue of plagiarism arises from what Christie seems to acknowledge is that remaining seven percent.

I could have overlooked most of the seven percent had it not been for one phrase that just jumped off the screen when I saw that split-screen video:

…your word is your bond…

The quote is attributed to the late actor Melvyn Douglas. I can’t seem to find a longer quotation around that line, so I’m not sure if it was from a movie script or from some statement he made when cameras weren’t officially rolling.

Those five words, however, are not that commonly used in conversation these days.

They weren’t commonly used in conversation back in 2008, either.

What are the odds that both women would use them in exactly the same way at the center of so many other identical consecutive words?

Naturally, Trump supporters run with that notion as proof that it was Michelle Obama who plagiarized a source. pointed out two passages from two other sources that it argues matches Obama’s speech.

One of those is a 1989 book by Will Steger called Crossing Antarctica that contains this phrase:

“As I learned anew in crossing Antarctica, the only limit to achievement is the limit you place on your own dreams.”

That site complains about the similarity of that section and one other from an obituary, then complains about how no one wants to talk about the possibility that Obama might have been guilty of plagiarizing in her speech, but, oddly enough, frames the complaints inside Ecclesiastes 1:9:

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

That verse and the way they use it seems to defeat their own argument, so I’m not sure if they’re really complaining about Obama or not.

But here’s the thing: if you’re going to complain about passages of Obama’s speech being plagiarism, then you can’t possibly deny that Trump’s speech was plagiarism: no matter how many consecutive words you match between Obama’s speech and some other source or sources, there are still those 22 — twenty-two — words that match exactly between Trump’s speech and Obama’s.

Does it matter?

That’s up to you and your political persuasion.

If you support one candidate, you probably are willing to ignore the example test that seeks to define what plagiarism is.

If you support the other candidate, it’s probably an entertaining talking point for you that you should know isn’t going to change your opponents’ minds about who to vote for.

But if you’re looking for fairness, and you’re determined to label the 2008 speech as plagiaristic, you are automatically characterizing the 2016 speech as plagiaristic, too.

That thought by itself should determine how important, in the grand scheme of things, the controversy actually is.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.