It Is Plagiarism Not Copyright Infringement

Plagiarism has become endemic in our higher institutions these days because of the proliferation and accessibility of the internet. There are also a number of cases of plagiarism that occurred outside academia, especially in speeches of politicians or their close associates. Few months ago, Melania Trump, wife of American president-elect, Donald Trump, picked verbatim some lines from Michelle Obama’s speech she delivered at the Democratic Convention in 2008 and replicated them in her own speech at the Republican National Convention about six months ago.

Soon after the widely applauded speech, it was immediately detected that Melania had plagiarized Michelle’s 2008 speech and the social media exploded with robust criticisms against Melania that immediately dwindled the immense glamour of her speech. Similarly, about five months ago, somewhere in September last year, President Buhari of Nigeria was said to have picked fragments of President Obama’s 2008 victory speech as his own without attributing it to the latter.

This did not escape the vigilant eyes of critics who lampooned the presidents on social media platforms and every other platform that they found convenient (See Akinremi, 2016). On the 7th of January, after President Akufo Addo’s widely celebrated and touted inaugural speech, it emerged later in the day that the president’s speech contained fragments that were taken from the inaugural speeches of two former American Presidents in the persons of Mr. Bill Clinton and Mr. George Bush Jnr. The usual internet and social media bashing was extensive as verbal bullets were fired to and fro between supporters of the presidents and some members of the opposition.

Immediately, the press secretary at the presidency quickly intervened to render an apology that I personally find very sincere (Ghanaweb 2017). It was a very mature and exemplary gesture of all standards. Indeed, it was a tactful sign of humility and a move towards unrelenting efforts to corroborate the president’s willingness to ensure that we are not just onlookers but citizens and partners in the development of our dear nation, Ghana.

However, despite the ambience this apology conveyed, some supporters of the president quickly mounted social media platforms to refute the idea that the president did actually plagiarized, especially the George Bush inaugural speech. The reason for the counter attack is that the statement used by the president was first used by Woodrow Wilson 70 years ago and that copyrights law permits people to use other peoples’ work 70 years after their death without attributing it to them. So, by copyright law, what is contained in the president’s speech does not infringe on copyright law. So it does not amount to Plagiarism.

I found this argument simply unappealing. There is either a measured or unintentional inclination to conflate copyright laws with plagiarism. It is against this background that I write this article to clarify their subtle nuances. Before I delve into the difference, let me quickly offer a rough explanation of the two terms. Plagiarism means using whole or part of someone’s work or idea without properly acknowledging the source. Copyright infringement means using a work without permission from its patent owners. Plagiarism is largely an academic abomination and a violation of proper academic standards; it is a failure to properly attribute authorship of a copied material. Copyright infringement, on the hand, is a legal construct and a failure to seek permission or pay for a copied material.

Those dragging Woodrow Wilson into this debate and citing copyright laws to defend their position are confusing copyright infringement with plagiarism. The president’s inaugural speech has not violated copyright laws. But it is a clear case of plagiarism because it fails to attribute the authorship of the copied portion of the text. It failed to attribute the source material to Woodrow Wilson. So if some past American presidents have also used this same expression without acknowledging Woodrow Wilson, it does not exonerate the presidents from criticisms as some people are trying to argue. Our president and the past US presidents are all guilty of plagiarism. Period.

It needs to be pointed out that not all cases of plagiarism are also copyright infringement and our president’s case is a good example. It is possible to lose patent on a material because of various reasons but not lose your attribution rights. Attribution rights are never lost. Works by Plato, Aristotle and a good number of classical works are no longer protected by copyright laws, but they have not lost their attribution right. So, students still cite and attribute ideas to Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Thucydides and many classical authors. Failure to attribute authorship to source material is tantamount to plagiarism.

Furthermore, I should shed some light on what constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism comes in several forms. One type of plagiarism comes in the form of taking someone’s idea or invention as your own without authorship or inventor attribution. The other is what is now popularly called linguistic plagiarism, which is copying verbatim a whole or some portions of some person’s work without proper acknowledgement. The first form of plagiarism usually gives rise to copyright infringement and cases of this nature are usually settled at court. But the second form is a bit mild because it does not involve legal issues. It is just an ethical matter that is frowned upon. Many institutions across the globe however usually sanction perpetrators of this form of plagiarism.

So for those who think that this matter is petty so it should be put to rest and those who think they can score cheap political points either by attacking the president or defending him are downplaying an important matter that is crucial for the nurturing of our students in the higher education. As I said earlier, plagiarism is now very common in our tertiary institutions and has become one of the most serious cankers that lecturers have been constantly dealing with. It therefore behooves us to debate this matter dispassionately without political undertone so as to teach our youngsters good research ethics, proper academic standards and intellectual virtue.

Akinremi Adeola (2016). Buhari’s plagiarized Speech in “Change Begins with Me”. This Day. Retrieved from: http://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2016/09/16/buharis-plagiarized-speech-in-change-begins-with-me/

Ghanaweb (2017). Government apologises for ‘plagiarised’ portions of Akufo-Addo’s speech. Retrieved from: http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/Government-apologises-for-plagiarised-portions-of-Akufo-Addo-s-speech-499266

Dr. Husein Inusah

Department of Classics and Philosophy

University of Cape Coast