Write new speeches, don't borrow from Hollywood

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The Australian minister of transport and infrastructure, Anthony Albanese, recently plunged himself into an embarrassing situation that will probably stain his reputation permanently (see the Daily Mail's coverage here). He delivered a speech in which one passage, a piece of nicely honed rhetoric about the leader of the opposition (the Liberal party), was lifted with hardly any alteration from a speech that Michael Douglas was seen giving in a 1995 American romantic comedy, The American President (script by Aaron Sorkin). Naturally the two speech segments are now available side by side on YouTube. Albanese's staff, who prepared the speech for him (Albanese claims never to have seen the movie) had apparently forgotten that (1) millions of Australians have in fact personally visited a movie theater, and (2) some of them remember at least parts of movies that they have seen.

The parts that are verbatim from Sorkin's script total around 45 words. There is no straightforward way to assign a precise score, because it is not clear how to do the accounting when there are small shifts in word position that don't affect the sense, or substitutions of names for names; but 45 is actually a large number in this context, making this an unusually striking case.

Previous analyses of plagiarism on Language Log include the case of Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarizing Megan McCafferty and Mark Steyn plagiarizing me, and those well-established cases did not involve runs of anything like 45 words. In the Viswanathan case, there were multiple plagiarisms, and the longest copied section I know about was 22 words. In the Mark Steyn case a mere dozen words seemed, when set in a wider context, to make a damning case in Mark Liberman's opinion.

In the following chart of the parallel pieces of language I show proper names and pronouns as dashes, because of course substituting as appropriate does not mitigate the plagiarism in any way. The fact that Albanese said "Australians" rather than "you", and named Liberal party leader Tony Abbott rather than the Michael Douglas character's fictional one, does not count in his favor. It does the reverse: it convinces us that he (or whoever his scriptwriter may have been) was not quoting a movie with intent that the quotation be recognized, he was ripping stuff off and re-using it without acknowledgment.

  Albanese Sorkin/Douglas
1 …we have serious …we have serious
2 challenges problems
3 to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. to solve and we need serious people to solve them.
4 Unfortunately, And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you
5 ____ is not the least bit interested in ____ is not the least bit interested in
6 fixing anything. solving it.
7 He is He is
8 only (see line 10)
9 interested in two things interested in two things
10 (see line 8) and two things only
11 making ___ afraid of it, and telling ___ who's to blame for it. making ___ afraid of it, and telling ___ who's to blame for it.

[I had two words of this wrong when I posted last night by wi-fi from Gatwick Airport. But I believe both transcriptions are accurate now. —GKP]

Politicians of the world — and above all, students of the world — beware. Plagiarism may seem like such a harmless sin to you. Iago says (in Shakespeare's Othello) that a thief who merely takes your money "steals trash; 'tis something, nothing; 'twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands." It may seem to you that this is even more true of sequences of words: they're free, there are indefinitely many of them, if you take a few it doesn't mean other people can't also use them… Stealing a few choice phrases is a victimless crime, you might feel. It was his phrase, now yours, and has been slave to thousands.

Don't believe it for a moment. The contempt of a public who discovers that your political rhetoric is filched will be considerable; the annoyance of a professor who discovers borrowed phrases in your term paper will probably be great enough to guarantee you an F; and the rage of a writer who finds that you stole his carefully crafted locutions will be extreme.

We writers, in particular, are vain, self-centered, and jealous. If you steal our stuff we will hunt you down and beat you. Or at the very least, mock the hell out of you on Language Log, and make you out to be a dishonest, ridiculous, inarticulate oaf. Our sentences are our babies. Don't steal them and pretend they are yours. Make your own. It's the ethical thing to do. And anyway, it's fun.

[Comments are closed so they cannot be plagiarized.]

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