Smart: Graduating As Valedictorian Of An Ivy League School; Not Smart: Plagiarizing Part Of Your Speech From A Famous Comedian

from the did-he-think-no-one-would-notice dept

As a bunch of folks have been sending in, it appears that the valedictorian of Columbia University’s General Studies program, Brian Corman, thought that no one would notice if he copied — verbatim — a joke from popular comedian Patton Oswalt. First, here’s Oswalt’s joke in two parts:

Then, there’s the clip of the part of Corman’s graduation speech, which, you’ll note is covered by a giant message from a dean at Columbia apologizing for the mess:
The dean’s apology reads:

It has come to our attention that a portion of our Valedictorian’s remarks at this year’s School of General Studies Class Day was taken from a comedy routine by Patton Oswalt. As an institution of higher learning that places a core value on respect for the works of others, we were surprised and disappointed to have learned of this matter today. Columbia University and the School of General Studies do not condone or permit the use of someone else’s work without proper citation. The student speaker has appropriately issued an apology to his classmates and to Mr. Oswalt for failing to provide such attribution.

Oswalt, for his part, wrote on his own site that while the kid apologized, he wonders about what sort of valedictorian would copy in such a manner:

Brian Corman apologized to me. Flat-out admitted his thievery, his stupidity. Owned it all. Good man. Still makes me wonder what he might have done to become valedictorian — I mean, if he’s willing to steal material for something as inconsequential as a speech, how rubbery did his boundaries become when his GPA and future career were on the line? Oh well.

Quite a story all around, and it raises a bunch of different points that we’ll hit in bullet form:

  • Joke copying: This is a popular topic that we’ve discussed a few times in the past. While it certainly does piss off comedians, they seem to ignore the fact that it’s not just quite common among comedians, but, historically, it was considered quite normal. That’s because people realized that there is no monopoly on being funny — and that it’s usually the timing and the delivery that matter much more than the joke itself (which can be seen in the clips above — where Oswalt’s version comes off much funnier than Corman’s copy).
  • Social mores: But, more importantly, it’s the social cost to copying that keeps this from getting too far out of line. In the comic world, comedians who have a reputation as big time joke copiers tend to get shunned. That’s not to say that many haven’t been successful still, but there is an effort within the community to self police, without any sort of legal regime needed.
  • Reputation: Related to that, what this really comes down to is a reputational issue. While Oswalt is wrong to call Corman’s actions “stealing,” he’s right to question the kid’s decision, and raise questions about his reputation. For a long time, now, Corman will be tagged as the guy who didn’t have the good sense to (a) know that it’s inappropriate to copy someone else’s work in a valedictiorian speech (b) realize that people would notice and (c) to realize that it would get a lot of attention, including a condemnation from the original comedian in the first place.

Notice, of course, that all of this is happening without the need to get the law involved, and the situation gets resolved quite nicely. Oswalt, deservedly, gets more attention for his act and his jokes. The kid gets a public shaming and his reputation (and job prospects?) take a hit. And, Columbia also gets a bit of a reputational hit as well for having a valedictorian who made these sorts of mistakes.

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Comments on “Smart: Graduating As Valedictorian Of An Ivy League School; Not Smart: Plagiarizing Part Of Your Speech From A Famous Comedian”

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ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:


The kid is not a comedian, for crying out loud, he’s giving a speech and repeats a joke. That’s pretty much how you do those things.

I appreciate the need for citation and attribution in academic work, but for a valedictorian speech? I don’t think it’s going to be cited in any research papers. (Well, now it might show up in some sociological paper, but that’s besides the point.)

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: What?

The kid is not a comedian, for crying out loud, he’s giving a speech and repeats a joke. That’s pretty much how you do those things.

Indeed. The problem here was that he claimed the situation actually happened to him. If he were just telling a joke, it might not be that big a deal. But the social mores say you don’t tell a story about something that happened to you — especially in an academic setting — if they didn’t actually happen to you.

ChurchHatesTucker (profile) says:

Re: Re: What?

“But the social mores say you don’t tell a story about something that happened to you — especially in an academic setting — if they didn’t actually happen to you.”

Yeah, I can see that being a point of objection.

I read it more like a ‘roast’ of a particular professor than something that actually happened. Since I’m an old skool geek and saw that punchline coming a mile away I figured it was in jest. But I can see someone taking it seriously. Still, overreact much?

(Also, if Kirk ordered Spock to fire the phasers, there would be a damn good reason for it, and Spock would do it. The premise of the punchline is flawed. /geekout)

JC says:

Re: The School Takes a Hit?

I agree that the school responded appropriately. Unfortunately, it’s a shame to see this associated with a school of Columbia’s (well deserved) reputation. It should also be noted the student was from the General Studies program – a VERY distinct and completely separate program that is part of the larger university and not part of the core, more elite Columbia College. And while he could have avoided this by simply citing this unkown comedian in his speech, his actions certainly fall short of taking credit for an academic thought or discovery. If he’s smart he uses this experience in job interviews and I have no doubt it will work for him – the valedictorian vilified for failure to appropriately cite sources for joke told to academic group.

Denise (profile) says:

Re: Re: The School Takes a Hit?

“Unknown” comedian is not accurate– he’s very famous, but that’s hardly the point. He stole the joke, he didn’t simply fail to cite a source. He said that the story happened to his friend.

My concern is that he clearly thought he could get away with plagiarism to a large group of people, so what did he do when the audience was just one professor?

Hoeppner says:

Re: The School Takes a Hit?

The school takes a hit because in simplest terms by giving the student a degree the school is saying “take our reputation, rather than this person’s reputation” for the first job interview or three. Admitably this should be better worded, but it’s not worth doing so for the Internet.

reechard (profile) says:

It's plagiarism

Plagiarism by journalists isn’t illegal either but it can get one fired or damage one’s reputation.

“the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.”

That’s the issue here. It’s wrong, and everyone knows it. I also believe there are more young people these days who think (or are told) that cheating is O.K. “as long as you don’t get caught.”

Karl (profile) says:

Everybody Loves Patton

What is it with Patton Oswalt getting ripped off? This is the second time in as many months:

The earlier situation was worse, since the guy got paid to do stand-up.

(I am, incidentally, using the phrase “ripping off” in a colloquial sense, not a legal one.)

Bob says:

GS IS Not a Separate or Distinct Program

To JS: GS is *not* a distinct program. GS students take the same courses with and (with few exceptions presumably because many are transfer students) have the same requirements as all other undergraduates at Columbia University. Please don’t spread rumors or denigrate the efforts of Columbia students — each of whom work so hard to get to Columbia in their own unique way — and who continue to work hard for their degrees once they are there.

Denise (profile) says:

Re: GS IS Not a Separate or Distinct Program

I don’t think comments on an article can denigrate Columbia as much as the fact that the valedictorian of GS plagiarized. If he plagiarized his valedictorian speech– to a large audience– what would stop him from plagiarizing to an audience of just one professor? I think his degree is worth nothing, and I’m wondering if UC Berkeley law school has rescinded their acceptance of him.

I’m not clear why so many people are so hazy on here about what plagiarism is. He passed material off as his own. Corman plagiarized from Patton Oswalt. It’s not complicated.

Ghost of ... Milton Berle says:

for the uninformed - Milton Berle became well known for stealing jokes from other comedians. ...

point 1: Good Will Hunting,
Matt Damon tells a joke to Robin Williams about a captian of an airplane. After the joke Robin asks ” have you ever been on a plane?” Matt answers….. NO but it makes the joke better to tell it in the first person. (GET IT?? A JOKE!)
The kid is not a public speaker and worked very hard to give a speach that would be entertaining.
This is what’s wrong with the world. EVERYBODY feels the need for compensation for even the most TRIVIAL thoughts.
IP and copyright laws ARE crippling EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE.

If we allow these “laws” to expand to absurdity WEBSTERS DICTIONARY will sue every author and the family of SAMUEL MORSE will own EVERY computer company AND the INTERNET since it is all based on 1’s and 0’s (dots and dashes)

point 2: If the kid wanted to steal a joke he should have swiped THE ARISTORCRATS…..

Bob says:

Re: for the uninformed - Milton Berle became well known for stealing jokes from other comedians. ...

I thought of that exact same point, Ghost Of…. of the general “jokes are meant to be retold” and the specific Good Will Hunting example. And I agree with you. In general, I am not sure that I see the retelling of a joke as plagiarism.

However… the problem I have is that he passed off the anecdote/experience as his own. The story he told did not happen to him in a class at Columbia. Was there not an appropriate story that he could tell that actually happened to him?

In my view, he unintentionally diminished the quality of his education by feeling the need to use a “borrowed” (used lightly) story… rather than an anecdote from his own experience. This is where I feel an infraction of some kind occurred. Whether or not it is plagiarism, it is clearly dishonest. And, that lack of integrity is unfortunate and causes others (sadly and possibly /possibly not) to question the quality of a Columbia education. For those reasons, I feel his decision was indeed a big deal… and quite problematic. It hurts not only himself, but others.

Ghost of ... Milton Berle says:

Re: Re: for the uninformed - Milton Berle became well known for stealing jokes from other comedians. ...

So where do we draw the line?

If after the laughter died down he said… na that didn’t happen. would it be ok?

Or does he have to thank the creator for the material cite when and where it was told originaly and reference how where and why the creator’s work applies in the context he is explaining today.

Karl (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Copyright v. Plagiarism

abused by the “damaged victims”

How was Patton Oswalt doing this? He claimed the kid “stole” (plagiarized) his jokes, and got pissed off. But he didn’t sue, or involve the legal system in any way; all he did was “name and shame.” Once the kid owned up, he accepted the apology.

It was never about the kid “reproducing” the joke; it was about the kid “taking ownership” of the joke. If he had just said something like “a story from Patton Oswalt comes to mind,” then nobody would have given a shit.

This is exactly how “stealing ideas” should be handled.

Bob says:

I agree. Different than a paper. But… What about passing off an experience as your own? (Especially when it is supposed to be representative of a shared experience of a group). Certainly uncool. Certainly a lie. In my opinion, unethical. Plagiarism? Not clear to me. (This is not an argument… I am literally not sure what I think yet re: the plagiarism aspect).

Matt Damon (in Good Will Hunting) was clearly making a joke of his joke. This guy passed the experience off as his own. (Just so you know… not sure what I think yet… just trying to think it through). Thoughts?

I definitely don’t think he should have included an experience that was not his own in his speech. But is it plagiarism to retell a joke? I am still not sure.

In the context that the guy told the anecdote, I say unethical.

Ghost of ... Milton Berle says:

In the context that the guy told the anecdote, I say unethical.

Who’s to say what was his thought process. I watched both clips an although it was a long time ago I can relate to and laugh at the joke.

I had a few professors who /had/ to teach classes that were so far beneath them it was like Einstein teaching 2nd grade math. They would try to dumb it down for the masses (like the Star Trek analogy) only to have the class derailed by details totaly unrelated to the subject.

Maybe /that/ was the parallel for the (again) JOKE. I don’t know I wasn’t there.

The kid has apologized and taken responsibility for his actions.

I just think its wrong to convice him in the court of public opinion for what in my mind is a casual, common occurance.

Bob says:

Hi again.

No. I was not a classmate and do not know much about the class. Heard it was taught by a female professor — who was not head of dept (but have not verified this info). Do not know anything about how the class was taught / whether or not his comment was “representative” / or, even, whether or not he took it.

The story was definitely presented as a first person account. Also, it was communicated that a fellow classmate was the one who ran to the front to talk to the prof…. again, as if it were a first person account, not some sort of representation.

BBT says:

I don’t understand why you keep believing this myth that the comedy community polices itself. Joke “thievery” is a lucrative path to success. See: Carlos Mencia, Denis Leary, Robin Williams, etc…In Leary/Williams case, they’re certainly talented, but joke plagiarism is how they made it big. Mencia is pretty much a talentless sack of excrement, but even he was able to turn plagiarism into profit.

The comedy community can disapprove them to hell and back, but that doesn’t stop them. I’m not arguing for government intervention, but the argument that social mores are stopping joke plagiarizers is absurd.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The comedy community can disapprove them to hell and back, but that doesn’t stop them. I’m not arguing for government intervention, but the argument that social mores are stopping joke plagiarizers is absurd.

I didn’t say it *stopped* joke plagiarizers. I just said there was a social cost to doing it. Now you can argue that those comedians have found the benefit to outweigh the cost, and that might be true. And, for them, a big part of the reason is that they are good comedians — in that they realize it’s more about the delivery than the joke (the execution, rather than the idea). Is there anything wrong with that?

Bob says:

I guess what makes me feel sad (and what makes me feel that criticism is warranted) is that he did not steal a “joke” – he stole a story. He told an anecdote, which was to be an example of why his classmates were so special/great… and the story was not true. Couldn’t he have told a true story? I have not heard whether any aspect of the story also happened to him, but I feel that would be highly coincidental. So, as badly as I feel for him, I do think he made an error. He misrepresented himself and his classmates… and I believe he hurt many people in the process. Presumably, he will still go off to law school, but other students have to go back to Columbia and live with his decision.

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