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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Politics and Plagiarism: Ghost Writing for Change

It is no mystery that most politicians use speech writers. Since the radio era, I don't think that any President has ever sat down to write out his inaugural address or his state of the union all on his lonesome. Which makes this election season's focus on rhetoric - and recent accusations of plagiarism - particularly interesting.

There have been several recent accusations that Barack Obama has regularly plagiarized language in his speeches. Most recently, he has been accused of lifting a passage in a speech at a Democratic Party dinner in Wisconsin that was originally spoken by Massachusetts Governor, Deval Patrick. Obama acknowledged using the passage saying he should have cited Patrick as the source, but claims that he and Patrick are friends and discussed using the language before he made the speech.

For more detailed information about the accusations, please see the following New York Times Articles (they're all extremely concise, and yet each tells a slightly different story):

Clinton Fingerprints on Plagiarism Flap
Clinton Camp Says Obama Plagiarized in Speech
In Politics, Inspiration or Plagiarism Is a Fine Line

No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, Clinton/Obama/McCain/No Confidence, plagiarism is not a matter that should be taken lightly, especially as a writer. The written word is not free. There is sometimes an attitude about words, that since they are free to any speaking person, that we should all have access to them in any form.

However, try to think of it like this: Words are like tap water. Writers take words, run them through a filter, send them to a bottling plant, design a label for them, market them, and distribute them. So when it arrives at your local convenience store, you're willing to pay a few dollars for the fancy new water in this nice cold bottle.

Payment for writing can come in two forms - financial payment or writing credit (or in the best of all worlds, both). Political speech writers get paid for their work - they don't get credit. When you suggest language to a politician for a speech, even if you are not on his or her writing staff, you can't imagine that you will get credit for it. What would a speech sound like if the politician had to incessantly give credit to each phrase?

Plagiarism is a serious accusation - but it only demeans the true problem when it is wrongly applied. Sharing language and ideas with political friends is not the same thing as taking a written word without consent and repeating it or publishing it as your own.

The irony of course is that the co-opted text was about the power of language itself:
“Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream.’ Just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ Just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words? Just speeches?”

- Barack Obama or Deval Patrick?

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