Melania Trump's speech: How do you define plagiarism?

Questions about whether portions of Melania Trump's speech were borrowed from one by Michelle Obama have sparked controversy. Plagiarism raises more ethical than legal issues, some say.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Melania Trump, wife of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks during first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Monday. A controversy over whether portions of Ms. Trump's speech were heavily borrowed from a 2008 speech by Michelle Obama has sparked competing claims. But some observers say defining plagiarism is tricky and it often raises more ethical, rather than legal, concerns.

The speech was intended to introduce the often-private wife of a decidedly non-private candidate to the world.

But when Melania Trump spoke at the Republican National Convention of her journey to the United States as an immigrant from Slovenia, a controversy about whether portions of Monday's speech were heavily borrowed from Michelle Obama's own 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention took center stage.

Beyond whether the speech was plagiarized, a series of thornier questions – how we define plagiarism, and whether it really matters in an increasingly unpredictable campaign – remained up for debate.

Indeed, some say, there is no such thing as a precise legal definition of plagiarism. However, ethical standards typically lean higher for writing, whether in academia or in journalism, than for political speeches, where candidates – especially those on the same political side – often express concepts in similar terms.

“When we say ethics, then we have to ask, ‘Well, where are those ethics coming from?’” says Michael Carroll, a law professor at American University.

"In professions, there might be a code of conduct that we can all agree on, but in politics its not clear that we have an agreed-upon code of conduct, so the ethics almost blend sort of directly into the politics," he tells The Christian Science Monitor. "If the people don't have a problem with it, is there some other reason to think it's a problem?" 

But while politicians often trade in cliches – the city on a hill, the idea of taking the country back – the issues become thornier when speeches borrow individual words, says Susan Blum, author of “My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture.”

"Her packaging of these widely shared values was in a certain sense original," Dr. Blum, an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, tells the Monitor. But that's not the problem, she adds.

"I don’t think the claim is that Michelle Obama’s ideas were what she borrowed," she says. "The claim is what she borrowed was her words, and when you look at the actual words it’s clear that they’re borrowed. I would call that theft, and it's not done out of respect."

The similarities between the two speeches, first noted by journalist Jarrett Hill on Twitter, quickly sparked a slew of finger-pointing, often backed up by numbers.

Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey said 93 percent of Ms. Trump’s speech was “completely different.” Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, put the the number of possibly borrowed words at 50. Washingtonian Magazine ran the first half of an excerpt through a plagiarism checker and found it was 46 percent non-unique.

On Wednesday, Meredith McIver, who worked with Melania Trump on the speech, issued a statement taking responsibility for the error and said she had offered her resignation, which Donald Trump declined.

Ms. McIver, who has worked on some of Donald Trump’s books, including "Think Like a Billionaire," and also described herself as a "longtime friend and admirer of the Trump family," said Ms. Trump had offered Ms. Obama’s speech as an example for the message she wanted to convey.

“Over the phone, she read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples. I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately become the final speech,” she wrote, noting that she didn’t review Obama’s speeches, though she said "no harm was meant."

The speech also points to a larger theme in Donald Trump’s campaign, which has largely relied on a skeletal staff, frequently drawn from outside politics, compared to his rivals' more familiar faces. It was initially drafted by two professional speech writers, but Ms. Trump rejected their draft and sought the help of McIver, The New York Times reports.

“I don’t Melania Trump did anything wrong, my sincere belief is that this was a speech written for her in large part, and this slipped through the cracks somehow,” Jonathan Bailey, who runs the website PlagiarismToday, tells the Monitor. “This was a problem on the writing side, and if anything it indicates a problem with not having the quality speech writers [the campaign] needs at this juncture.”

The speech also plays into an already polarized electorate, with people who support Trump defending the speech while opponents criticize it, he says.

Still the decision to use many of the same words as Obama’s speech “comes across as I guess you would say, not genuine, when that happens, and it makes it seem like she’s trying co-opt Michelle Obama’s experiences for her own,” Mr. Bailey adds.

But Trump’s popularity with his supporters also means that it is unlikely to become a political liability, he says. That’s a contrast with current Vice President Joe Biden, who eventually dropped out of the 1988 presidential race after it emerged that he had borrowed phrases from a speech by the British Labour Party politician Neil Kinnock.

Instead, says Notre Dame's Blum, the controversy over the speech could even bolster the views of supporters who see Trump as an authority-defying, rule-breaking figure.

“I could imagine that for some people who are drawn to Donald Trump and his message, that could be appealing,” Blum says, noting that students sometimes express a Trumpian disdain for citation rules in academic papers.

“I don’t think I speak that often to people who are willing to tell me that, but I know lots of people who find the norms of academic citation archaic and baroque and they just want to get the job done. If the teacher requires them to write a paper on a topic they don’t care about, they will find a way to get it done,” she adds.

While there are ethical consequences and the potential reputation damage caused by a plagiarism scandal – a book by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is one example – legal punishment through copyright or fraud claims is unlikely, says Carroll, the law professor.

“In a way, you pay the political price if it comes [out] that you’re borrowing your key phrases from your opponent, [in terms of] 'How is the public going to receive that information?'” he says.

But, he adds, "We've seen politicians steal their opponents' lines and turn them around. I think we have to accept that there’s an amount of space for political craft."

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