It is not just students who get caught cutting corners and using other people’s work and ideas, and getting found out can be a cause for considerable embarrassment in the Digital Age. There are a plethora of famous cases of plagiarism, and this article briefly documents five of the most well-known of these, which includes the cases of: (1) Melania Trump, (2) Martin Luther King Jr., (3) George Harrison, (4) Alex Haley, and (5) Saddam Hussein. While these cases range from plagiarism in the world of politics, music, literature, and academia, they are all cases that have been carried out either intentionally or unintentionally, and they are all cases that have garnered much attention by the world’s press. So with further ado, let’s jump right in…
1. The Case of Melania Trump
One of the most famous recent cases of plagiarism is that of a speech made by Melania Trump shortly after in the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The speech has been widely compared to that of the 2008 speech made by Michelle Obama, the former First Lady, which was similar in content and structure to the one that Melania Trump made. This became something of a social media sensation, and is likely to be something of an embarrassment to the Trump family. Thus, if we compare two sections of these two different speeches, to begin with, Melania said that:
“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” (Melania Trump, 2016).
However, if we compare this to the Obama speech in 2008, Michelle says that:
“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” (Michelle Obama, 2008).
These then, show some remarkable similarities, as the speeches do in their entirety, with this section of the speech in particular having a number of different matches, which include: (1) that both were raised with the values that success comes from hard work, (2) that both were raised with the value of being honest and keeping one’s word, and (3) that it is important to treat people with respect. Perhaps key here, is the phrase “that your word is your bond and you do what you say”, which appears to have been copied word for word, with no attempt being made here to even paraphrase. This then, is a clear case of plagiarism by the current Second Lady of the United States (or by her speechwriter at least), and this sends the wrong message to many young people, that plagiarism is acceptable – which of course it is not, and it is punished in many areas of society, including in academic institutions. Nevertheless, although this represents a continued source of ridicule for the Second Lady of the United States of America, she was not formally punished for this clear case of plagiarism in her speech, although it might be said that such punishment has been administered informally through social media, and via the world’s press. Of course, Melania Trump may not have been aware of the copied elements of her speech, but there are many high profile individuals who are aware of such plagiarism, and still go ahead with the use of other people’ ideas and work; and one such case like this shall now be looked at.
2. The Case of Martin Luther King Jr.
Another high profile case of plagiarism is that of Martin Luther King Jr., the well-known leader of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States. Although his legacy as a civil rights leader is largely untouched, and his “I have a dream…” speech is known by people all over the world, a case of plagiarism did arise posthumously, which concerned the dissertation he wrote for his doctorate in 1955. Thus, there was an academic inquiry into this in the early 1990s, and King was found guilty of plagiarising some portions of the work. However, as a result of King’s significant achievements outside of academia, and his status as something of a national hero in the United States, his doctorate was not revoked. Thus, although this case of plagiarism may have cast a shadow on King’s achievements, it has not significantly changed how people view him, or the things that he has achieved for the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, this case does serve as a warning, that even after death, any instance of plagiarism can be raised, and can cast a shadow on the life achievements of a person, and everything they have worked to do.
3. The Case of George Harrison
Of course, plagiarism does not have to be overt and purposefully done, and can even be done unconsciously if the plagiarist has been exposed to material that has influenced them, without them being aware of it. In fact, this is exactly what happened to former Beatles star, guitarist, and songwriter George Harrison. The case concerned Harrison’s 1970 hit ‘My Sweet Lord’, which had many similarities to the 1963 hit ‘He’s So Fine’ by the Chiffons. As a result, Bright Tunes filed a lawsuit against Harrison for an infringement of the copyright of ‘He’s So Fine’, and this resulted in Harrison paying a fine of over half a million dollars, which at the time was a significant amount of money. It was, in the end, ruled as a case of accidental plagiarism, with Harrison allegedly listening to the 1963 hit, forgetting about it, and subconsciously taking in some of the elements of the song and using it for his 1970 hit, which was his first solo single. While this was not the best of starts to Harrison’s solo career, he did go on to be a successful solo artist in his own right. However, again, this case put a shadow over his artistry, and is even talked about after his death in 2001, aged just fifty-eight. Although this serves as a warning to all artists and writers, this kind of plagiarism is very difficult to guard against, as it is rooted in the unconscious mind. Nevertheless, if you do get that déjà vu feeling when writing something, perhaps, in the age of technology, it might be prudent to do a search on the Internet, to make sure that it is not just information that your subconscious mind is using to influence you. Thus, if you do this, then you just might be able to avoid a case of plagiarism, and particularly if your work is going to be put out into the public domain.
4. The Case of Alex Haley
In fact, while such cases of accidental plagiarism can be quite common in the world of music, this can similarly be the case in the world of literature. Indeed, just as the unconscious mind can take in musical information and store it in the brain, so too can it take in literary information, and so someone who is an avid reader might consciously forget what they have read; but this information still lurks in the unconscious mind, ready to be used sub-consciously. Indeed, this is exactly what allegedly took place in Alex Haley’s 1976 book ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family’, which tells the story of a young African sold into slavery in the eighteenth century. This book had a big influence on popular culture in the West, with it being a bestseller in the literary world, with the story also being turned into a screenplay, and becoming a TV drama that was viewed by millions of people around the world. Nevertheless, in 1978, the book ‘Roots’ was highlighted as a work of plagiarism, with some sections of the book being compared to the 1965 novel ‘The African’, written by Harold Courlander. Although Haley claimed that this had been done accidentally, he agreed that the passages had been subconsciously taken from ‘The African’, and this led to a settlement of $650,000 for the plagiarism, which despite Haley’s success, must have made a significant impact on his profits from the 1976 book and literary sensation – and by today’s standards, this is an amount that is in the millions. As such, this case of plagiarism has somewhat besmirched the author’s reputation and what he achieved; but in the current epoch such forms of accidental plagiarism are much easier to guard against via digital searches in plagiarism detection software packages such as Viper. Thus, nowadays, it is always prudent to check one’s work for elements of plagiarism, whether this is for lyrics for a song, a literary piece, an article, or academic work. Anybody can be found guilty of plagiarism, whether this is done on purpose or not, and the more high profile an individual, and the more likely that they stand to lose in respect of their reputation and their career – as something like this can follow someone throughout the rest of their lives (as it can be seen as a character flaw, or dishonesty). Nevertheless, this is something that is not only carried out by individuals, but also by larger organisations, and this will now be demonstrated by the fifth and final case.
5. The Case of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Government
Finally, evidence of plagiarism can also be serious in other ways, such as the case of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi government in 2003. The United Nations had requested information pertaining to Iraq’s military operations and weapons program, and Saddam and his government duly responded with a large document detailing a counter-declaration. However, it was found that large sections had been copied from the United Nations’ own reports, with much of this done in a word-for-word fashion, and other parts edited in order to delete any criticism of Iraq, or to make it appear to be an original document. This then, is perhaps a much more dangerous and insidious form of plagiarism than those found in artistic circles, as this political plagiarism was aimed at withholding vital information about Iraq’s weapons program, and this no doubt contributed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein and his regime, and the subsequent political and civil turmoil in Iraq in the years that followed. This then, was certainly not a case of accidental plagiarism, and was done with intent and a willingness to keep information from the United Nations. This particular case then is not just famous, but also infamous; but the deed was identified and responded to as appropriate by the United Nations and state powers in the West. In the end, these five cases represent just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to famous cases of plagiarism throughout history, but they are five of the most notable, and span different areas of society – such as contemporary politics, pop music, literature, and academic writing by notable figures. Moreover, while some of these cases are notably unintentional, and have been carried out in a subconscious way, other cases are more overt and done on purpose, and so it might be said that all cases of plagiarism cannot be judged equally. Nevertheless, with the rise of digital technologies, it is now easier to detect your own plagiarism, and so it is wise to check any work that you do, and make sure that it has not been plucked from your unconscious mind and been taken from another person’s work. Plagiarism is a serious offence that can result in social ridicule or financial punishment, so beware and make sure to check your work via plagiarism detection software such as Viper.