The Obama Plagiarism Scandal


Obama PortraitTypically, I am loathe to enter the world of plagiarism scandals as they are usually off-topic for this site and generally do no good to its readers.

However, over the past few days, the Obama plagiarism controversy has dominated my RSS reader with bloggers on both sides using it to attack and defend both candidates in the race.

So, rather than let the opportunity slide by, I thought it would be wise to take a look at the scandal, put it in some perspective and see what lessons bloggers and Webmasters could learn from it.

After all, even though we are not writing campaign speeches, we are putting our words in the most public forum in the world, the Web, and many of the same lessons apply.

What Happened

Obama Plagiarism ScandalOn February 16, Barack Obama gave a speech in Wisconsin where he answered allegations from his main political rival, Hillary Clinton, that all he had to offer was “just words”.

To answer the charge, he quoted a series of well-known speeches and documents from U.S. history, including those by Martin Luther King Jr, John F. Kennedy as well as the Declaration of Independence and asked if they were “Just Words”.

With hours, a clip emerged on YouTube (embedded below) that compared Obama’s speech to a 2006 speech by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. In Patrick’s speech, he used many of the same quotes as well as very similar phrasing.

In all, the two clips are remarkably similar.

The Clinton campaign seized on this and accused Obama of plagiarism. Obama responded, saying that Patrick and himself are good friends and share ideas regularly. Even Patrick himself, the plagiarized party, has taken to national TV to defend Obama.

However, Obama has acknowledged that he should have given Patrick credit when speaking, saying that “He (Patrick) had suggested we use these lines. I thought they were good lines. I’m sure I should have. Didn’t this time.”

The story has grown to incredible proportions. Google News is reporting over 900 news references for “Obama Plagiarism”, including over 150 unique stories,

Perhaps unfortunate for the campaign, the story is not going away and Obama’s campaign has fired back, accusing Clinton of plagiarizing Obama’s speeches and catch-phrases.

It seems that the back and forth is poised to continue for some time to come.

A Flawed Argument

Back in 2006, I wrote briefly about plagiarism accusations filed against Martin Luther King Jr. The conclusion I came to then was that, while the accusations were disconcerting, they were not a reason to abandon his legacy.

But it seems that, whenever there is a plagiarism accusation against a public figure, there is a tendency to take things to the extreme. Either the allegations don’t matter at all or they are completely discrediting to everything they have done.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.

The accusation against Obama is that he, with permission from the original author, took ideas from a speech and presented them as his own. Much of the material involved was quoted from previous speeches that are already well-known.

Should Obama have given credit to his friend? Yes. Does it reflect on his moral character that he didn’t? It is hard to say. It is easy when giving a speech to omit sections. The question is whether it was an honest mistake or an attempt to present the words as something they weren’t.

Given that Obama, by all accounts, had permission to use the verbiage before going up, the evidence leans to the “honest mistake” side. However, only Obama knows the complete truth.

What is clear, however, is that this issue is a distraction. Both sides are hurling plagiarism accusations while not talking about the critical issues of the day. They are smearing one another vigorously over stolen words while ignoring other, more important matters.

Part of the problem is that politicians, for better or worse, are not generally held to the same standard as authors, researchers and artists. Most people realize that the words from a politician are not wholly their own. They have speechwriters, image consultants and others working behind the scenes to help them craft the right message.

Does this excuse plagiarism? Not in the least. But it does show that plagiarism accusations in politics are, generally, purely political attacks, especially when they are as questionably grounded as this one. I feel that this not only belittles the issues that are being ignored, but also plagiarism itself.

After all, how can lay people take plagiarism seriously when politicians use it as little more than a means to attack each other’s reputation.

Sadly, both camps are guilty of that at this point.

While I would want to know if a candidate were guilty of widespread and deliberate plagiarism, making a large deal out of permitted plagiarism of a few sentences, especially when the lack of attribution could have been accidental, does no one any good.

Lessons Gleaned

So what can Webmasters and bloggers learn from this scandal? Well, many of the lessons will be familiar to anyone who reads this site, but they are worth repeating.

  1. Attribute Obsessively: It is not enough to merely attribute up to current standards, one has to go above and beyond. Not only does it make such scandals much less likely, but it provides proof of good faith when and if an omission does happen. Though not everyone’s words are under the same scrutiny as Obama, pretend that they are.
  2. Get Permission: Though Obama appears to have had permission to use the words he did and it didn’t avert the scandal, imagine how much different it would be if Patrick hadn’t spoken up and said that Obama had clearance to use the words. It was a wise move by Obama.
  3. Incidental Plagiarism Still Counts: The plagiarized portion was only a few sentences, but either the memory of someone on the Web or advanced search tools were able to detect the plagiarism. The fact that it is only a few sentences or not a direct quote doesn’t mean much. The plagiarism can be found so long as it is recognizeable. Take nothing for granted.

In the end, it comes down to the same tried and true system of always attributing any content that you use, no matter how small, and always showing respect for the words of others, even if you have permission to use them.

Though this is much easier to do in print than in a speech. It is even more important as the words we write are more easily searched and parsed than the words we say.


Having seen so much plagiarism over the past six years of my life, the Obama scandal certainly seems to be on the more minor end of the spectrum. Especially when compared to the Joseph Biden scandaltqxtzxqqbcfqsxrvefzvbvffcewtrfratvtuc from the late 80s, the use of a few short sentences, with permission from the original author, seems almost petty.

This isn’t to say that Obama is excused for his actions, just that there are clearly bigger fish to fry. The exposure by the Clinton campaign seems to be motivated solely by politics, as is Obama’s counter-attack and that belittles both the ongoing issues and the nature of plagiarism itself.

Though I am clearly against plagiarism and have no sharp political opinions about Obama or Clinton, I think the nation, and indeed the world, would be better served if the issue were dropped in favor of the topics that matter more in the election.

Furthermore, the excitement over this case can be seen by some as a slap in the face. With so many authors and artists struggling with widespread and unwelcome plagiarism, all of the attention on a case of incidental and permitted reuse is almost insulting.

No matter what you think of Obama or his actions, there are clearly worse copycats out there and many others far more deserving of the title “plagiarist”.

Photo Credit: Photo of Obama from Flickr. Licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Image of speech comparisons taken from the YouTube Clip below.

Want to Republish this Article? Request Free Permission Here. It's Free.


  1. I, for one, enjoy reading about plagiarism "scandals." Perhaps it's because I'm a writer and I like to see people squirm when they've been caught stealing other people's work. (Hey, I don't watch network television or read tabloids, so I have to get my seedy thrills somewhere.)It seems to me that Obama made a mistake in not mentioning the source of his material. It also seems to me that the Clinton camp blew the entire thing out of proportion. It's unfortunate, however, that a campaign sinks to scandals and finger-pointing when there are so many important ISSUES they should be discussing. And it's especially upsetting when the media picks up on it and makes it an important issue when it most certainly is not one.

  2. Maria: On one hand, I agree. I enjoy reading about them to and it is definitely a guilty pleasure of mine. The Cassie Edwards scandal, Kaavya Viswanathan debacle, etc. were all interesting times for me as I followed them, watched them evolve and, in the case of the latter, reported on it. I agree completely that writers should be forced to stew in their own juices when caught plagiarizing, I just don't think this is the site.Perhaps I should start up an irregular blog that details those scandals. Could be fun. That way I can focus here on helping writers and artists protect their own works and delve more into gossip there.Hm…

  3. VERY sad. Ask Nora Roberts and Cassie Edwards if plagiarism isn't a theft. When even the romance industry has more standards and ethics that a presidencial candidate, this nation is in trouble. Just great, now students will be able to defend charges of plagiarism by saying if a president can do it, why can't I? Isn't this a lovely example…If Plagiarism is a theft, then Obama isn't change, he's just a thief.

  4. It’s a shame the www ( wild wild west? ) won’t learn these lessons. Attributing obsessively would put half the social networking sites out of business; you can find a lot of gorgeous photographs and literary passages, and have no idea who wrote any of them.

  5. It’s a shame the www ( wild wild west? ) won’t learn these lessons. Attributing obsessively would put half the social networking sites out of business; you can find a lot of gorgeous photographs and literary passages, and have no idea who wrote any of them.

  6. Nina: I agree that plagiarism is theft and if the person Obama is accused of stealing from hadn't been encouraging the use I'd probably feel very different. The fact is that, on the scale of plagiarism, this is on the far, far side of less importance. The big deal being made about it is more political than anything.This is sad and frustrating because none of those interjecting into this case care about the plagiarists stealing my work or yours, they only care about Obama's case because he's running for President.I face far, far worse demons every day. Obama could have handled it better, I agree, but it is just a minor offense in the scheme of things.Forrest: True, very true. I don't have much to add to it other than my agreement…

  7. How many times does Obama have to steal other peoples words including Hillarys. And Hillarys ECO. plan for the people and the media to wake up!!! WAKE UP AMERICA!!!!

  8. The sad fact is that both Obama and Hillary have been hit with plagiarism accusations and both have about the same amount of credibility. Both use ghostwriters to write much of their speeches, both have staffers write much of their plans. I'm certainly not for plagiarism and I have no strong political ties to either, but I am dead against the politicization of plagiarism. It ducks the serious issues that are facing our nation and, in this case, insults those of us who have more serious plagiarism issues to deal with.Both sides are guilty of that at this point and I have no love for it.

  9. Jonathan said: "…I am dead against the politicization of plagiarism. It ducks the serious issues that are facing our nation…"I certainly couldn't agree with that statement any more. Sadly, our political process depends on finger pointing, tarnishing the reputation of the opponents, and ducking the real issues in a massive popularity contest. As an American citizen, I find the whole thing sickening, even without plagiarism accusations. When we we get a viable presidential candidate that's above all this nonsense and honest about his/her take on the issues?

  10. Maria: Sadly, looking through American history, that has been the nature of politics since day one. At least our politicians are not bashing each other over the heads with canes or fighting duels. We've made SOME progress. Then again, a good old-fashioned duel might be preferable to the mudslinging wars, at least those only involve two shots.

  11. plagiarism (pla·gia·rism), root word is Plagiarize


    Pronunciation: ˈplÄ?-jə-ˌrÄ«z also -jē-ə-

    Function: verb

    Inflected Form(s): pla·gia·rized; pla·gia·riz·ing

    Etymology: plagiary

    Date: 1716

    transitive verb : to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source intransitive verb : to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

    pla·gia·riz·er noun

  12. Mar: If you'd actually read the article above, you'd see quotes like this one where I openly acknowledge that the use constitutes plagiarism: "The plagiarized portion was only a few sentences, but either the memory of someone on the Web or advanced search tools were able to detect the plagiarism."Your insinuation that myself or others on this site need to re-learn the definition of plagiarism simply because we are capable of seeing shades of gray and acknowledge that, while plagiarism is wrong, this is the most minor form of it possible. I have no strong love for either candidate involved, but incidents like this drive me away from Clinton supporters. This is not a black and white issue that can be handled in a dictionary definition but it is definitely a serious distraction from much more serious topics.

  13. As a writer, I've heard it said many times that there is "nothing new" anymore. It's all been done. Obviously, that's an exaggeration.It was pointed out on The Daily Show on Monday that Clinton's 3AM telephone call ad was a remaking of a very similar ad from the Mondale campaign. All this stuff is copied and regurgitated, either purposely or accidentally. Who knows? Maybe the maker of Clinton's 3AM telephone call ad was an 8-year old at the time the Mondale ad appeared. He may have seen it and although his conscious doesn't remember it, his subconscious does. He thought he had a new idea. I'm not saying this is what happened. I'm just saying that it's possible.The same goes for many speakers and writers. We're exposed to huge amounts of media ever day of our lives. Who knows what goes in one ear and gets lodged in the back of our minds, not quite remembered but certainly part of our subconscious. Again, I'm not making excuses for anyone. I'm just trying to point out that there is often a thin line between the regurgitation of someone else's material and outright plagiarism.Going back to the Obama case, if he indeed borrowed parts of a friend's speech with permission, that's not plagiarism. His error was in failing to start the borrowed part(s) with a statement like, "As my friend Deval Patrick said…" While I don't think failing to credit his source in this case (since he supposedly had permission) is a problem, Obama needs to realize that he's under the microscope and his opponent and her team will do whatever they can to discredit him. (That's the sucky part of politics.) If they can raise a stink and call it plagiarism, they will.Personally, I don't think that making such a big deal about this did the Clinton camp much good. All it did was give her supporters another reason to support her. But I don't think it converted any of his supporters. And I'm not convinced it decided any undecideds to go with her.

  14. Maria: Color me as one of the undecided's not swayed by this "scandal". It seemed to me that people who had strong feelings about it one way or another already had political alliances in place and their opinion about the right or wrong of the plagiarism was not influenced by the facts of the case, but who they wanted to win.As someone who despises plagiarism, that really upsets me…

  15. Dear Jonathon,Actually, in number five, it would benone of those interjecting into this case cares . . . Have a great day, love the site!Yours,Burt

  16. Please check facts before quoting them. Governor Patrick did not grant permission to copy until AFTER the plagiarism was outted. As Governor Patrick had already endorsed Senator Obama, and as they shared a campaign manager, he had little choice but to cooperate.

    The sight of journalists, who depend upon Intellectual Property Rights law for their income, hotly declaring plagiarism to be “trivial” was appalling.

    As was the remarkable decision by several cable networks to call upon Doris K. Goodwin and Bob Beckel as commentators, without mentioning either of their previous embarrassments.

  17. Hoban is carping. Plagiarism is always of grave importance to all public speaker and certainly to political candidates. With the instant electronic checking no speaker is knowlingly going to use the word another without attribution. Let us use our time and energy to rally our country to impeach “W” and his “Puppeteer” for breaking the laws of The Constitution and flagrantly lieing to the American people.