Robbins: What constitutes plagiarism? |

Robbins: What constitutes plagiarism?

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO, Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Following her loss in the Wisconsin primary, former front-running Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tried to land a 10th round knockout by accusing her rival, Senator Barack Obama, of stealing certain lines in a Milwaukee speech from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. Patrick’s speech, delivered more than a year ago, was strikingly similar to Mr. Obama’s, both of them invoking familiar, stirring phrases from Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Obama did not give attribution to Mr. Patrick for the “lifted” portions of his speech.

Obama countered that Patrick is a national co-chair of his presidential campaign, that the two are close friends who speak frequently, and that Obama at least tacit approval, if not explicit permission to borrow lines from Patrick’s speech. Patrick backs this up.

Most candidates for national office engage speech writers and various advisors. Obama’s chief strategist, David Alexrod, also advised Patrick in his 2006 gubernatorial campaign. This, of course, raises the question of whose words were these in the first place and, if you pay a strategist or a speech writer to help you craft a speech, can you use his or her creative product without attributing the source? Does that amount to plagiarism?

Do ya’ll think President Bush really crafts those gems of his? Like this one from a 2000 speech in Florence, South Carolina: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” Maybe we should give him credit for that one.

Clinton for that matter, has borrowed liberally from her husband’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns, and even from Obama.

What, then, is plagiarism and how is it related to copyright and trademark? What they have in common is the currency of ideas and the fraudulent expression of who thunk ’em up.

Plagiarism may be defined as the act of appropriating the literary composition or ideas of another and passing them off as your own. The “ideas” part may give you pause. For example, am I the only one touching on the subject of plagiarism these days in light of the Clinton-Obama fracas? Hardly. And don’t we ” at least in significant part ” form our own ideas by sipping from the soup of others’ ideas?

In the context of plagiarism, though, the “ideas” element has really more to do with one’s approach. If I wrote a love story, say, there would be nothing new in the idea.

But if the action followed, say, the plot of the movie “Atonement,” chapter and verse, it might rightly be said I filched Ian McEwan’s creative spark.

The expression of an original idea is considered intellectual property and, like any other kind of property, it may be misappropriated or stolen. Of course, you cannot steal if someone makes a gift to you of what is his or hers.

“Copyright” was a property right which was granted to an author in his or her literary works. Modernly, it has been extended to include, in addition to literary works, rights in musical, motion picture and other creations.

Trademarks protect products of a particular design or manufacture which distinguish vendible commodities of particular merchants from those of all others. Trademarks also extend to specific marks, phrases, and emblems which identify a particular product.

If someone pays me to create something original and new but reserves the right to own it to themselves, it’s called a “work for hire,” meaning what I create for them is theirs, not mine, and all I am entitled to is the compensation I was promised. The “it’s the real thing” ditty, for example, was likely created by an advertising agency for Coca-Cola but, the phrase is Coca-Cola’s, not the adman’s.

In the last analysis, is Obama right to vigorously defend himself against the Clinton camp’s accusations? Let me share this original thought and ask you whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?” Oops… that’s Shakespeare. Must have slipped my mind.

Anyway, did Obama commit plagiarism in Milwaukee? Is this the brouhaha that makes Milwaukee famous? No, it’s less sudsy. A tempest in a teapot, really.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 926-4461 or by e-mail at

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