"Canada PM faces plagiarism claim", says the BBC. And indeed some copying certainly occurred — in addition to comparing the texts, the story juxtaposes and then overlays video of a speech made by Australian PM John Howard on March 18, 2003, with video of a speech made by Canadian politician (and now PM) Stephen Harper. Here's a bit of the overlaid audio:
But as the story makes clear, the copying was actually done by Harper's then speechwriter, one Owen Lippert:
A Canadian Conservative Party speech-writer has resigned after Prime Minister Stephen Harper was accused of plagiarism in a speech he made in 2003.
Owen Lippert admitted he had been "overzealous in copying segments" of a speech in support of the invasion of Iraq by then Australian PM John Howard.
Mr Lippert said neither his superiors nor Mr Harper, who was opposition leader at the time, had been aware.
Ironically, according the Google cache version of a page now removed from the website of the Fraser Institute ("A free and prosperous world through choice, markets and responsibility"), Lippert specializes in intellectual property:
Owen Lippert was formerly Director of the Law and Markets Project at the Fraser Institute. He writes and researches on intellectual property, aboriginal, legal and trade issues. Previously, he served as a policy advisor to the federal Minister of Science, the Attorney General of Canada and to the Premier of British Columbia. He holds a Ph.D. in European History from the University of Notre Dame, Indiana and a B.A. from Carleton College, Minnesota. He has most recently edited and contributed to Competitive Strategies for Intellectual Property Protection (Fraser Institute, February 2000). His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Post, Globe and Mail and many regional papers in Canada and the United States. He writes the Law and Economics column for Canadian Lawyer magazine.
This puts into sharp relief a problem that has worried me for some time. As teachers, we insist (for good reason) that students' papers must be their own work in their own words, and we punish them for hiring others to write for them. But out in the real world, important people hardly ever write the speeches they give or the books that are published over their names. Newspaper op-eds and even regular columns are often ghost-written as well. (When my sister was a graduate student, she supported herself in part by researching and writing a weekly syndicated column that was published over the name of the well-respected president of a major research university.)
It's no secret that many students, especially wealthy ones, begin this process early, sometimes in high school and often for college entrance essays. Of course their parents are usually complicit if not prime movers in this — and we shouldn't be shocked that wealthy and successful people, used to hiring others to write for them, see this as a perfectly normal way to help their children become successful in turn.
Computer search makes it fairly easy to detect the low-rent form of plagiarism to which poorer students are limited, where they find something on the web, borrow it from a frat brother, or buy it from a paper mill that recycles research papers or essays. It's much harder to detect genuinely ghost-written material — but I'm sure that I'm not the only faculty member who has caught students submitting recycled text, only to have them angrily blame the ghostwriter who cheated them by claiming that it was all new material.
That's essentially the position that Stephen Harper finds himself in. His speechwriter, Owen Lippert, was hired to provide him with new material, but got pressed for time, and lifted several paragraphs from a speech given a few days earlier on the other side of the world — which no doubt was written by another ghostwriter, not by the man who delivered it.
Why does this make the news? Not because Stephen Harper is passing someone else's words off as his own — he does that every time he gives a speech, and so does nearly every other politician and executive in the modern world. Well-informed people know this, though I bet that a large percentage of the public continues to believe that leaders' words are their own. But for some reason, when it turns out that a ghostwriter copied in turn from someone else, this is felt to be culpable and shocking.
The first puzzle here is why we continue to feel that every political speech should be freshly ghostwritten. Why is it worse for politico X to read a passage written by ghostwriter A for politico Y, rather than by ghostwriter B for politico X? This is not a rhetorical question; I think that there's some notion of delegated agency at work here, but I'm not sure what it is, exactly, or whether it makes any sense at all. (I don't think that intellectual property rights have anything to do with this — it would be even more of a scandal if it turned out that Stephen Harper were licensing the rights to John Howard's speeches according to the rules of the Berne Convention.)
The second puzzle is how to clarify to students (and their parents) that for them as students to hire ghostwriters is forbidden and subject to harsh punishment, while as soon as they graduate, it will be become normal and even obligatory. Actually, this is an easy argument to make, in my opinion — but as a rule, academic institutions don't even try to make it.
For example, the "Academic Code of Honor" at Notre Dame, Owen Lippert's alma mater, presents the usual rules about plagiarism — including self-plagiarism — without any mention of the contrast between these rules and the normal practices in modern society at large, or any explanation of the reasons for the difference. And Notre Dame is not unusual in this respect. I've never seen an academic website on plagiarism that discusses these issues (though of course some may exist).
In this situation, I believe that it's hard for students to distinguish the rules against plagiarism from other cases where there are rules that apply to them but are not applied to others, for unconvincing reasons or for no non-circular reason at all, like the restriction on alcohol before age 21. And we periodically get these strange political scandals (like the Harper/Howard scandal, or the Biden/Kinnock scandal of 1988), where an election is affected because a hired writer doesn't produce fresh material for a politician to present as his own.
Isn't it time for some philosopher to clarify the morality of plagiarism in a way that maintains the importance of originality in student (and scholarly) work, without making every politician and a large fraction of book authors ethically guilty?