Is It Really So Bad If A Student Plagiarizes A Speech?

from the get-over-it dept

We've discussed how silly the concept of "plagiarism" is in many contexts once you look at the details. It's a concept that needs to be rethought -- as it often really represents someone reimagining a work in a different, and potentially valuable context. In fact, we've seen a few plagiarized defenses of plagiarism that are pieces of art by themselves.

It can be especially silly in school, where what some people consider plagiarism is really no different than collaboration. And, in fact, what people complain is "plagiarism" in schools is the sort of thing that can often be considered perfectly reasonable as an adult. When a newscaster reads someone else's script, is that plagiarism? What about when a politician reads a speech by a speechwriter? In both cases they're "passing off" someone else's work as their own. And, of course, in the stand-up comedy world, "joke stealing" is considered a part of the business (the same is true in casual joke telling) -- and that's fine. Because the words themselves aren't always what's important. It's the delivery. Or the message. Or the actions to back up the words.

That's why it seems rather overblown to read about a local controversy in Palo Alto, California, as some graduation speeches apparently borrowed heavily from others. In the details provided, it sounds like the "plagiarism" mostly consisted of jokes. Again, repeating and sharing jokes is a crucial part of culture. Pretending that only one person can ever say a joke seems ridiculous -- especially on something where the delivery and presentation are so important. So, rather than condemning these kids for seeing some funny stories and incorporating them into their talks, can we start recognizing that maybe, just maybe, "plagiarism" isn't really as bad as some make it out to be.


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  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 12:08pm

    The bottom-line distinction is very, very simple: give credit to your sources. If you do, superb. If you don't, you're a cheat.

     

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    Dave, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 12:12pm

    That's idiotic. Direct plagiarism is a disgrace in most cases. The examples you use are completely inaccurate. A politician using the work of a speechwriter is not the same thing. That person is on staff and is writing the work for the politician. Are you saying Leno, Letterman, and Jon Stewart plagiarize from their paid writers every night? Of course not. While we're on the subject, those who steal jokes in the stand-up comedy world from other comics are hated in the business. Absolutely hated. I'm not saying it's a criminal offense if a kid steals a graduation speech, but it's an awful thing when people start plagiarizing, and when others start ignoring it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 12:26pm

    Plagiarism is so easy to avoid -- just cite your sources. This kid didn't do that, and it calls into question his entire academic record, not just his valedictorian award. Therefore of course he should be stripped of the award, and he should be thankful if that's all they decide to do.

    Plagiarism is not cooperation, it's not even regular lying, it's fraud. You're fraudulently representing someone else's ideas as your own. Taking plagiarism lightly makes it ok to commit fraud... if that's ok with you then so be it, but it's not ok with me.

     

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    Different Dave, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 12:26pm

    Plagerising jokes?

    I think we're making a mountain out of a mole hill here. Most jokes are just subtle derivatives of other jokes anyway. Maybe we should force comedians to patent jokes with a full list of potential prior art and cited humour sources.

    And to assume that a graduation speech would be 100% original is dumb. If a kid thinks somebody's joke is representative of their feelings, let them go for it. I'd hate to think that people think that graduation speeches are some kind of chance to create the new great work of our time.

     

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    Ralph, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 12:37pm

    If I read something, and think something that has been thought before, am I a plagurist?

    A big problem with strict anti-plagurism and source-citing is that it ignores the possibility of common sense. Many people can and do come to the same or similar conclusions.

    Someone has probably said this before, but they may have used slightly different words, so I can't google for their words, and can't avoid 'plagurizing' their work.

     

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    JBB, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 12:39pm

    Is it really so bad?

    It's a concept that needs to be rethought -- as it often really represents someone reimagining a work in a different, and potentially valuable context. In fact, we've seen a few plagiarized defenses of plagiarism that are pieces of art by themselves.

    JBB

     

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    asdf, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 1:35pm

    At my college I was accused of plagarizing for not citing what they said was "not a well known fact". The fact being the number of chromosomes. Seriously? Don't they teach that in 6th grade?

     

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    Hulser, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 1:35pm

    Not citing your source not necisarilly Plagiarism

    Is It Really So Bad If A Student Plagiarizes A Speech?

    Well, yes...actually it is. But a key point for me is that not citing your source when using non-original work is not necessarily plagiarism. It's about the presumption of authorship. For example, when a newscaster reads the news, I don't think anyone believes that they've written the copy. Same for speeches. Anyone who knows anything about politics understands that a modern politician doesn't stay up all night writing their own speeches. And what about jokes? Does the audience of a high school graduation believe that the kid wrote his own joke? Please. It's assumed that s/he heard it or read it somewhere.

    But I think most people would presume that the actual content of a graduation speech is original. Again, the key point is about what a normal person, using common sense, would understand to be original and what's not.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 1:40pm

    The president of my university while I was still in college sent out an email about plagiarism that he or somebody in his staff had taken from a different university's president.

     

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    cvpunk, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 1:47pm

    hmmmm....

    I don't know how you can tell... all graduation speeches sound the same to me. "we will change the world...blah blah blech"

     

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    Josh, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 1:49pm

    Maybe different

    You mention an interesting point, how in school plagarism is frowned upon, but in the "real world", it's not as serious. I think there's an important distinction to be made here. In an educational setting (eg passing a course in college), your work goes towards earning something, like a credit or degree. If you plagarise, you are using someone else's work to your own credit, and that's dishonest. If you put your work into your own words, or just cited the person you worked with, no problem, but if you just copy, that's not acceptible, and you should be punsihed.

    However, if you're a newscaster using someone else's script, or giving a speech based heavily on someone else's work, there no "award" for you to have at the end. There's only your reputation, And so, plagarism isn't so bad, since you are not "gaining" something unfairly. In fact, you might even innovate on the work, and come up with some slightly (but distinctively) different. I guess my main point is that plagarism in academic settings IS bad, and should be punished, even if plagarism in a broader sense needs to be reconsidered.

     

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    Repeater Repeater, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 1:59pm

    Seriously

    I have no idea how this could blow up to such a "scandal." Do these people not tell jokes and funny stories? Do they start the joke off with "Originally told by such and such on such and such a date"? A HUGE percentage of speeches have some joke or funny story in there and I can almost guarantee none of them site their source (other than "A wise man once said" or "My [influential person] once told me...").

    And for the record, that same joke was used at my High School graduation in 2001 and I'm sure it was used at other graduations before mine.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 2:03pm

    How does one cite to a source when telling a joke in a speech?
    "According to so-and-so, something funny happened to me on the way here..."

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 2:03pm

    All speeches plagiarized?

    I mean, really. How many different ways can you say "look to the future?" Ever been a best man at a wedding and tried to rack your brain for something you haven't heard during the best man toast at the myriad of weddings you attended? It's just not possible.

    Nor is it important. The context is important, and should be a determining factor. While the expression of a common idea, joke, or "wow it's hot today" tidbit may not be universally original, it's still appropriate, relevant, and original to utilize it to connect with that particular conversation or event.

     

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    Hank, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 2:15pm

    my 2 cents

    How does one cite to a source when telling a joke in a speech? Pretending that only one person can ever say a joke seems ridiculous -- especially on something where the delivery and presentation are so important. I mean, really. How many different ways can you say "look to the future?" Ever been a best man at a wedding and tried to rack your brain for something you haven't heard during the best man toast at the myriad of weddings you attended? It's just not possible. So, rather than condemning these kids for seeing some funny stories and incorporating them into their talks, can we start recognizing that maybe, just maybe, "plagiarism" isn't really as bad as some make it out to be.

     

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    Hank, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 2:18pm

    Re: my 2 cents

    Ok, seriously now..........does anyone out there believe that after thousands of years of written and verbal language anything you say or write is completely original?

    You are not special, you are not a snowflake, grow up and realize that billions of people came before us and the probability that someone had the same thought as you is pretty high.

     

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    Jason, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 2:31pm

    Depends

    Jokes - that part is just ridiculous. Including a citation for a joke ruins the joke. Maybe 1/10 people in the world are really honestly funny. Assume it's stolen, and if you have a problem with it, then it's your obligation not to laugh.

    But as for general content and examples - it's just a shame not to cite them properly. Reason being, the story behind the example adds meaningful context and reinforces the facts/examples/anecdotes. Even if you're giving an impromptu speech and you don't remember - it's called, "Someone once said," or "I've heard..."

    Want to be extra sneaky about it and semi-cite? Form it as a question. "Did you hear...?"

    To me, it comes short of the question of legality. Doing it right just makes your speech better.

     

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    Joseph Wills, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 2:44pm

    Re: my 2 cents

    In today's copyright-infatuated world, every bit of writing that is recorded in any medium automatically receives copyright protection, even if the writer doesn't ask for it. That goes for letters, emails, blogs, comments on blogs, etc. Therefore, you violated the copyright of those who came before you, by quoting them without citing them or paying a royalty (to their possibly unborn grandchildren). You are both a plagiarist and a copyright infringer.

    Eventually, you won't be able to write even a single sentence without violating someone's copyright, because every conceivable phrase and sentence will have been written, and thus be under copyright to someone. By then, simply starting a speech with "My fellow students" or a letter with "Dear Sir" will put you in hot water, as either a plagiarist or a copyright infringer, or both.

    But, rather than condemning you for seeing some pertinent quotes and incorporating them into your posts, I've started to recognize that maybe, just maybe, "plagiarism" isn't really as bad as some make it out to be.

    And once every phrase and sentence is under copyright protection, copyright will become valueless, because every human will be forced, by necessity, to violate copyright, just to conduct their daily lives. Maybe, just maybe, at that point, our elected "leaders" will finally see that copyrighting everything automatically, and extending copyright to the ludicrous duration it currently receives, wasn't such a good idea after all (if you sing "Happy Birthday" in public, maybe even in the privacy of your own home, you are supposed to pay a performance royalty -- 114 years after the song was written). More likely, hell will freeze over first.

     

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  19.  
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    Wondering Mind, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 3:10pm

    What would George say?

    Slightly related... In wonder what G. Bush would say, IF he didn't have his teleprompter, ear plug and battery pack (was it Karl Rove on the other end of the line?), note cards prepared by someone else, etc.... what would he say if asked to define the word "freedom"?

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 3:13pm

    Mike, I thought you were all about innovation. Plagiarism sure seems like just the opposite of innovation to me. Nice way to contradict yourself. Let me guess, it is in the best economic interest to plagiarize.

     

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    Mike (profile), Jun 27th, 2008 @ 3:27pm

    Re:

    Mike, I thought you were all about innovation. Plagiarism sure seems like just the opposite of innovation to me. Nice way to contradict yourself. Let me guess, it is in the best economic interest to plagiarize.

    There's no contradiction here at all. The point is not to focus on artificial limitations. If someone does nothing but plagiarize, then they won't get very far. But if they plagiarize in a way that makes something *better* gets it out to more people or improves upon it, that is innovation.

    Where's the contradiction?

     

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    Hunk, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 5:29pm

    My take on this

    How does one cite to a source when telling a joke in a speech? Do they start the joke off with "Originally told by such and such on such and such a date"? I mean, really. How many different ways can you say "look to the future?" Ever been a best man at a wedding and tried to rack your brain for something you haven't heard during the best man toast at the myriad of weddings you attended? It's just not possible. So, rather than condemning these kids for using some funny stories and incorporating them into their speeches, can we start applauding them for not doing what schools have taught kids to do for years, that is, not read a source and re-word it so much that it becomes annoying to read. They wrote their own content and mixed it with an amusing story that someone wrote many years ago (that other high school kid who used the story wasn't the originator of it either). I'm sure if someone were to have asked him, just like if someone where to have asked any of us, if he wrote the joke, who would of said "No, I read it online."

     

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  23.  
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    Michael, Jun 27th, 2008 @ 10:27pm

    Plagiarism isn't that bad

    What people need to remember is that as long as the person isn't blatantly ripping someone off and denying it then everything is fine. The world isn't going to end because someone borrows from someone else's speech. The only thing I would suggest is that teachers and parents need to start teaching attribution to their children so that they know that sometimes it is ok and as long as they follow the rules everything turns out ok.

    As a child I was told that if I copied from a book or someone else it was plagiarism and I was told that it was illegal and I could be arrested for doing it in the real world, that's a little harsh isn't it?

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 28th, 2008 @ 7:03am

    Re: Plagiarism isn't that bad

    There's a little thing called integrity. A lot of folks around here don't sound like they've heard of it. Look it up.

    I agree with an earlier comment, regarding the presumption of authorship, and I agree that the fuss over a joke is ridiculous. But to go from that to the idea that plagiarism, in general, isn't that bad is unbelievably unethical.

    In the "real world" you might not go to jail, but when caught, you'd surely lose your job and look like an ass while doing it.

    Influence and transformation, when the inspiration(s) is recognized, is not plagiarism. Taking the work of others and claiming it as your own, or transforming a work without recognizing the primary influences, is just ass-hat shady.

     

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    Orlin, Jun 28th, 2008 @ 11:28am

    I think you are missing the point. When a student writes a work, it is not only for the work, but it is a sort of test, he should show that for the few years he has studied there, he really has learned something. That is why he should show some creativity and what he has learned, sit on his ass and work.
    There is another reason - I am currently writing one of my graduating works (the last work before starting the diplom dissertation). I worked for the past 3 months quite hard, let's assume that someone plagiarizes a work, copy paste, changes name and date - less than 30 min work and to make even things worst, he gets a better note than me. I would feel really stupid for having spent that much time hard working and be demotivated and probably next time will copy/paste some others work, which would make the idea of writing such works for a university pointless. This is an argument I didn't see here, and I believe it is a vital one in this case.
    Cheers,
    Orlin

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 28th, 2008 @ 2:35pm

    Re: Re:

    And what pray tell is an "artificial limitation"? Let me guess...that nasty thing known as copyright. Plagiarism, however, can exist totally independent of the copyright laws you repeatedly ridicule.

    As an example, many works are in the public domain and beyond the reach of copyright law. Are you suggesting that plagiarizing such works is perfectly ok?

     

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  27.  
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    Mike (profile), Jun 29th, 2008 @ 10:38pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    And what pray tell is an "artificial limitation"?

    Telling someone they can't make any use of the work of others in crafting their own work.

    Let me guess...that nasty thing known as copyright.

    No. Plagiarism and copyright are entirely separate things.

    As an example, many works are in the public domain and beyond the reach of copyright law. Are you suggesting that plagiarizing such works is perfectly ok?

    Do not put words in my mouth. They don't prove your point, and, in fact, make you look like you can't read.

    As I said, if someone does nothing but plagiarize, they won't get very far. But being able to use another work to do something more with it should be not just allowed, but encouraged.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 29th, 2008 @ 10:56pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "Do not put words in my mouth."

    I put no such words in your mouth. I asked a question using a hypothetical where clearly copyright would not apply so that it would not be a factor in presenting your answer.

     

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    Mike (profile), Jun 30th, 2008 @ 1:04am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I asked a question using a hypothetical where clearly copyright would not apply so that it would not be a factor in presenting your answer.

    And I answered your question.

     

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  30.  
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    Ferin, Jun 30th, 2008 @ 4:44am

    Deceptive

    I think the outrage mostly stems from a feeling that the people misrepresent themselves when they knowingly choose not to attribute quotations to those who made them. It's not necessarily a smart repsonse, but it's just a feeling we have.

     

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