For ethics experts and writing professionals, there’s little doubt that the similarities between passages in Melania Trump’s speech on Monday and an earlier convention speech by Michelle Obama constitute plagiarism.
But the real-world consequences of such a transgression are less clear.
The internet has made plagiarism more rampant, and yet there is no commonly accepted definition of what plagiarism is or isn’t, nor what the appropriate punishment should be.
“The internet has certainly created a bull market in plagiarism,” said Barbara Glatt, a Chicago consultant who developed a software program for universities to detect plagiarism in student writing.
Journalists oftentimes call out plagiarism by others but aren’t bound by a consistent standard when it comes to their work.
"The internet has certainly created a bull market in plagiarism. " - Dr. Barbara Glatt
“Journalism generally is averse to talk about it,” said David Uberti, a staff writer at the Columbia Journalism Review. “There’s a point to be made about how we don’t discuss this enough.”
Journalists, authors, academics and politicians who have taken others’ work without attribution have faced short-term consequences such as a reprimand or losing a job, but didn’t necessarily suffer in the long run.
Universities use software programs to detect plagiarism by students, but students can also use the same software in their defense.
“Sometimes my program exonerates people,” Glatt said. “It cuts both ways.”
Two paragraphs in Melania Trump’s Monday evening speech were nearly identical to lines in a speech Michelle Obama gave to the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
Melania Trump told NBC earlier Tuesday that she had written the speech “with as little help as possible.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Trump spokesman Jason Miller said Melania Trump’s “team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking.”
On Tuesday, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort told CNN that “there was no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech.”
Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has no doubt the two paragraphs in question would qualify as plagiarism, whether in a newsroom, classroom or at a political podium.
“There’s a certain amount of content in political speeches that’s the same.” Culver said. “But in this case there are particular turns of phrase that just make it too close.”
Glatt’s software removes every fifth word of the text of a speech, and relies on the writer’s memory to fill in the gaps. She said Melania Trump would hardly be the first, or the worst, to stumble. And while embarrassing, the incident probably won’t result in serious consequences.
“It’s much to do about nothing relative to other people who have been accused,” Glatt said.
Vice President Joe Biden, when he was a senator from Delaware, lifted a speech by the leader of the British Labour Party in late 1987. He abandoned his nascent 1988 presidential bid, but became vice president two decades later.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin failed to credit some of her sources for a book about the Kennedy family. She resigned from the Pulitzer board amid the controversy but remains a bestselling author.
Journalist Fareed Zakaria apologized in 2012 for taking material from other writers and was temporarily suspended from Time and CNN. Zakaria still hosts a show on CNN and writes a foreign affairs column for The Washington Post.
Culver said that Melania Trump’s speech appears to be an example of “patch writing,” which happens when someone lifts another person’s work and changes a few words in it, thinking that’s enough to make it original, Culver said.
“Just changing a few words here and there does not absolve the problem,” she said. “You’re taking someone else’s concepts and words and using them without using proper credit.”
"Everything is so vetted in a campaign. It’s very standard practice for speechwriters to vet speeches before delivering them. " - Kathleen Culver, University of Wisconsin-Madison
A professional speechwriter would know that, said David Murray, executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association.
Murray called the borrowed passages in Melania Trump’s speech “incredibly sloppy work” and said speechwriters don’t usually make that kind of mistake.
“Speechwriters usually have more pride of authorship than that,” he said.
Culver said she couldn’t comprehend how it could happen in a campaign.
“Everything is so vetted in a campaign,” she said. “It’s very standard practice for speechwriters to vet speeches before delivering them.”