At the first day of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Melania Trump gave a speech including these words:

"From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily lives. That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them."

This seems strikingly similar to Michelle Obama's speech when her husband was nominated as the Presidential candidate about eight years earlier:

"And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them. And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and to pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children -- and all children in this nation -- to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them."

Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort characterized the possibility of plagiarism as "crazy" and "just really absurd," an attempt by Clinton to "demean [Melania Trump], and take her down." Apparently "what she did was use words that are common words;" "these were common words and values." Gov. Christie said "There's no way that Melania Trump was plagiarizing Michelle Obama's speech." After all, most of the speech was not the same as Obama's (or Astley's). The speaker herself claimed, "I wrote it ... with (as) little help as possible."

The campaign could have said something like "Yeah, we copied those bits; so what? Our party will unite the country behind those values this November and we can see they've got proven electoral success. We're going to be winning so much,..." Instead, they chose not to do that and took a strong position that this kind of copying is not plagiarism and is so far from it that even the suggestion is absurd.

In a situation unsettlingly common for modern American politics, it seems like people with opposing views don't even understand why there's any question here. On the one hand, widely respected voices say there's no way this could even possibly be plagiarism, while others taking a different perspective think there's no way it isn't. I wouldn't be surprised if folks from both sides vote to close this under the reasoning that there isn't even a real question about this topic, since their own view is so obviously the only right one.

Maybe standards have diverged so much because plagiarism is usually handled quietly and it's rare to have any large-scale public discussion or catalyzing event that would prompt such a discussion. Here is such an opportunity.

If it's now "crazy" or "just really absurd" to think that this might be plagiarism, what are the standards?

They've apparently shifted (or gotten on a plane and flown halfway around the world) quite a bit since I learned them. If I'm going to be writing, reviewing, and grading work of politically diverse authors, I need to learn the modern standards, quickly.

So, what are the standards, especially around reusing "common words and values," tweaks to original phrasings, and percentages of a work that's mostly original?
Are they a lot different with an audience tens of millions strong than when it's a handful of specialists? If so, how?

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    Sounds the same as any other politician's speech. I feel you're wasting your time with a plagiarism debate. It's not intended as original research. – TheMathemagician Jul 19 '16 at 15:15
  • If she'd said "yeah, I ripped that off Obama, because I agree with it" then it wouldn't matter [to me]. It's the claim to originality and the claims by prominent leaders about what the standards are for plagiarism nowadays that are a bit more alarming - have I really missed some drastic shift? Are my views on this topic antiquated enough to now be "crazy" and "absurd?" What exactly are the modern standards? Also, this question evaluating Barack Obama's JAMA paper by academic standards was well received here. – WBT Jul 19 '16 at 15:22
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    This question is not really about academia. If a student turned in a paper with that level of similarity to someone else's work, it would be considered plagiarism, end of story. It shouldn't surprise you that people who have a vested interest in the matter are denying that it's plagiarism; that's unfortunately how politics works nowadays. – user37208 Jul 19 '16 at 15:33
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about ethical standards in politics, not about academia at all. – JeffE Jul 19 '16 at 16:36
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    The standards for what is considered plagiarism depends on the context. Your question is about plagiarism in the context of a political speech, which is out of the scope of this site. If you have a question about plagiarism in an academic context, on the other hand... – ff524 Jul 19 '16 at 17:33

If we look at Wikipedia, these seem to be relevant parts here:

Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics.

For political speeches of the kind we're discussing, there are near zero expectations regarding academic correctness, or journalistic integrity (not to mention honesty and ethics, which are also part of the quoted sentence).

Any standards are valid only in their respective context. Academic plagiarism and journalistic plagiarism have vastly different standards and consequences. As far as I am aware, there is no standard for plagiarism in the context of political speeches.


Plagiarism is not in itself a crime, but can constitute copyright infringement

Copyright (usually) allows derivative works, which seems to be what we're dealing with here.

In other words: You can't plagiarize a political speech.

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  • There is a significant history of politicians copying, sometimes word for word, other politicians, even those of the opposing party. Sometimes they get called out for it, but that disappears very quickly in the 24/7 news cycle. – MikeP Jul 19 '16 at 16:55
  • This comment and the part of the answer above the line explains why folks would not care if a political plagiarizer just admitted it and said "so what?" The Republicans easily could have done that and moved on to focus on the substance of the speech and how they plan to unite the country behind those values, etc. Instead, they chose not to do that and took a strong position that this kind of copying is not plagiarism and is so far from it that even the suggestion is absurd. The last line of this answer seems to be the clearest rule the answer presents. – WBT Jul 19 '16 at 17:12
  • +1, with the caveat, that of course M. Trump's speech constitutes plagiarism. Pace Chris Christie and some of the republican establishment, intent isn't really necessary to commit plagiarism, so that fact that M. Trump didn't mean to plagiarize isn't germane. But, of course, the general response that nobody (in the US) expects a political speech to be a work of original scholarship is also quite right. It's dumb of M. Trump to have plagiarized and just as dumb for the other republicans to have denied that she plagiarized, but it's ultimately not a big deal. – user10636 Jul 19 '16 at 20:44

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