How bad is plagiarism…really?

In case you haven’t paid attention to the news this week, let me give you a couple of highlights on what’s been going on…Kim Kardashian shared a secretly taped phone conversation between her husband, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift and might end up going to jail. And, Melania Trump delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention that plagiarized a speech Michelle Obama gave in 2008 and is getting flamed by the media for it. 

I’ll leave it to you all to decide how much you want to know about all the Kimye vs. T. Swift nonsense, but I thought I’d offer some insights on Melania’s very public flub. 

Let me be clear: This is not a political post! So, please keep reading…

Plagiarism, especially in politics, is an age-old problem. It’s so common that, in the past, “victims” of plagiarism (i.e. the persons who created the original work) rarely even knew they’d been plagiarized. But with nearly everyone today running around with a computer in the pockets (i.e. smartphone or tablet), plagiarism is getting a lot more attention. 

What is plagiarism? The definition is: “The practice of taking someone else's words, work or ideas and passing them off as one's own.” 

Basically, it’s copying. And, as we all know from our grade school teachers, copying is not allowed. 

So, how come so many people do it? In the case of Melania Trump, she and her speechwriter were brainstorming her speech, and Mrs. Trump shared passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech that she admired…and her speechwriter faithfully wrote those passes down, word-for-word from Mrs. Trump, and put them into her speech, without fact checking to see if those were Mrs. Trump’s words, paraphrasing Mrs. Obama, or if those were the exact words Mrs. Obama’s used. Whoops! They were actually Mrs. Obama’s words. 

I suspect…no, wait, I KNOW…that this happens a lot with plagiarism. You see something someone else has done, said or thought, and admired it. Whatever it was, they just captured it perfectly, and it really meant something to you. The trouble begins when you take their words, work or ideas, and use them exactly the same without giving the original person credit for it. It’s why in college your professors were always on you to cite your sources. 

No one has issues with people using other people’s words, works or ideas to illustrate their argument or make their own points – after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But, you have to give credit where credit is due! If someone else said it, the respectful thing to do is to give that person(s) props for it.

Back to the title of my post, how bad is plagiarism…really? The answer: It depends. In Melania Trump’s case, it’s very embarrassing for her and has ramifications for her husband’s presidential campaign. It speaks to their credibility as public figures, and that is something the voters will decide on come November. 

That said, I don’t think Mrs. Obama is going to sue Mrs. Trump over the use of copied words. But for many people, especially in organizations or businesses that are in the public eye frequently, that’s the real threat of plagiarism — being sued. Add that to the immediate moments of embarrassment, and the long-term perception of lack of credibility (and integrity), and plagiarism can do a lot of damage. 

As someone who makes her living creating content for other people, I can appreciate how “borrowing” words, works and ideas from a variety of sources can spark creativity, inspiration and motivation. I have done it myself. The challenge, though, is to not rip off other’s creations completely, but instead, change it to be uniquely yours…and then, cite your sources! 

Remember, there is nothing wrong or dishonorable with admitting you had help. Trust me; you’ll look smarter for being resourceful and not have to deal with the embarrassing fallout from blatantly copying others.