Melania Trump’s speech: why plagiarism is always damaging

Did Melania Trump’s recent speech plagiarise an earlier speech by Michelle Obama? Was it accidental? Was it deliberate? Does anyone remember what else she said? Does it matter?

Melania Trump and speechwriting - plagiarism is always damaging

Did ghosts get into the Trump family’s speech-making machine?

What should we take note of on how to write our own speeches, from that scruffy row?

What the Melania plagiarism row was all about

Round 1: Melania, Cleveland, 2016 … “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.”

Round 2: Michelle, back in 2008“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.”

Oh, naughty, naughty. A coincidence?  

Round 3: Melania, 2016 … “[My parents] taught me to show the values and morals in my daily life. That is the 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.”

Round 4: Michelle, 2008 … “And Barack Obama and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generations. Because we want our children, and all children in this nation, to know that the only limit to the height of your achievement is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

Pretty close, huh?

What actually constitutes plagiarism according to US Law?

Here is what US-based Plagiarism.org has to say about it:

“…CAN WORDS AND IDEAS REALLY BE STOLEN?

According to U.S. law, the answer is yes. The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way (such as a book or a computer file).

ALL OF THE FOLLOWING ARE CONSIDERED PLAGIARISM:

  • turning in someone else’s work as your own
  • copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not …

Most cases of plagiarism can be avoided, however, by citing sources. Simply acknowledging that certain material has been borrowed and providing your audience with the information necessary to find that source is usually enough to prevent plagiarism.”

So all Melania had to do was thank Michelle for the lines?

Yes, and have the Democrats laughing so hard you would have heard them all the way to Cleveland; and Donald would have had a bad hair day.

No, instead Meredith McIver was produced out of the shadows as having ghost written the speech, muttered something about having confused Michelle Obama’s lines with Melania’s inspirations, and then grovelled by offering to resign.

Donald generously refused, forgave her and probably ordered a very expensive gift to be delivered to her home the next day. If you want all the get-down-and-dirty on that story, click over to this piece by Snopes

What can we learn about the use of ghost writing for speeches?

It’s almost certain that someone, or possibly a team, ghost wrote Melania’s speech. Even I have had the honour of ghost writing politicians’ speeches in Westminster (UK Parliament) as well as ghosting for literally hundreds of “captains of industry.” These people have good reasons to use ghost writers:

1.Speech writing is a specialised job and is very hard to learn. Some politicians happen also to be good speechwriters, but not many. Ditto with industry head honchos.

2.People like politicians, politicians’ wives, corporate head honchos etc. have their agendas carved in stone for 12 hours a day. Writing a good speech takes time, even if you’re good at it, and these people often don’t have time to go to the bathroom, never mind sit over a laptop for 4 hours.

Only because I can’t believe that anyone could be so stupid as to deliberately plagiarise a well known speech, and be even more stupid to choose one given by the Democrat President’s wife, do I think this could have been a hideous accident.

The official explanation (see above) is probably too thickly sugar-coated.

My guess would be that the speech writer may have had those words in the back of her mind having “heard them somewhere before” – and used them without checking. That deserves a hard slap on the wrist, but it can happen.

Remember the court case about the late Beatle George Harrison’s song, “My Sweet Lord?”

OK, there are only 12 notes in the musical chromatic scale – and nearly all pop songs are only played on just four chords anyway – so the chances of two songs turning out to be identical are much stronger than in spoken English (which has just over 1 million words to choose from.)

When George Harrison composed the anthem “My Sweet Lord” he had no recollection of a song recorded some years earlier by an obscure US girl band, entitled “He’s So Fine.”

It just so happened he used the standard four chords and tripped over the same melody – but maybe having logged it in the back of his mind way back when.

Lawyers got involved and the dispute went on and, as this article explains, Harrison eventually was prosecuted for “subconscious plagiarism” which cost him more than USD $1.5 million – quite painful even for a Beatle back in 1976.

Where plagiarism really gets into hot water: tertiary education

Plagiarism is a major headache for universities all over the world.

Students quite cheerfully pay ghost writers to write their theses and dissertations for them – so risking the inclusion of plagiarised material (by the ghost writers) without even realising it.

And even if they do write the pieces themselves it is very easy for them to look up other people’s work on the same topic and help themselves to chunks or even the whole thing.

It must make university staff want to tear their hair out. More about plagiarism in education here…

In business or even social speech writing, there is no excuse for accidental or even “subconscious” plagiarism now

That’s my main “take out” of all this Melania Trump story, and whether you use a ghost writer or write your own speeches, if you have even an inkling that something you have included may be the remnant of an old memory, cut and paste it into the Google search box.

If it was written before, Google will find it for you.

There are a number of tools available to help you check, as well, and many of them are free. Google “check for plagiarism.”

And the other main take out is, if you do use someone else’s words, make you sure you attribute the quote to them – whether on paper, on screen (include links) or out loud.

PS – Melania is not the only political figure to step in plagiarism doo-doo…

Mark Tran, writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper recently, uncovered some smelly similarities between speeches given by the following pairs…
**Delaware senator Joe Biden and UK Labour leader, Neil Kinnock.
**Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister and Australian prime minister, John Howard
**Barack Obama, US President and Governor Deval Patrick
**Ben Carson, former Republican Presidential candidate and socialismsucks.net

Mark’s article makes very interesting final thoughts on plagiarism in speech writing…

Questions? Want a speech (totally original!) written? Drop Suze a note on suze@suzanstmaur.com 

 

Photo of Donald and Melania Trump thanks to Boss Tweed.

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