Just What is Plagiarism Anyway?

By Barry R. Lewin

Jacob Feldstein, a student intern at GR&R, contributed to this article.

The opening guitar riff to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971) is well known, but how did it get to be newsworthy recently? The band Spirit claimed that the riff was taken by Led Zeppelin without permission, a copyright infringement, from a riff in Spirit’s “Taurus” (1968). Led Zeppelin reportedly opened shows for Spirit, and would have had the opportunity to hear “Taurus” before writing “Stairway to Heaven.” Spirit sued and a jury recently found Led Zeppelin to not have infringed. The case is now under appeal.

Melania Trump, wife of the now-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention and one portion was found to be nearly identical to Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech and was reported as plagiarism. Ms. Obama in 2008, and Ms. Trump in 2016, both said that their parents instilled in them 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] that you treat people with respect… and pass them on to the next generation because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

Plagiarism and copyright infringement are similar and overlap at times. Plagiarism occurs when one tries to pass off someone else’s words, ideas, or images, etc. as their own without citing the original work. It is considered a serious ethical offense and can be a form of copyright infringement. Plagiarism can occur under different circumstances, and the impact and response are situation-dependent. A student who has plagiarized is often considered academically dishonest and can receive an automatic failure for the plagiarized assignment and suspension and even expulsion. A journalist who plagiarizes can lose his/her job. Copyright infringement is using someone’s copyrighted work without consent. All original written works, including literary, music, and film works are protected by copyright; registration of a work with the Copyright Office entitles a copyright owner to additional benefits, including, in most cases, the ability to file suit for infringement in Federal court.

According to the Harvard College Writing Program, there are different types of plagiarism–verbatim plagiarism, mosaic plagiarism, inadequate paraphrasing, uncited paraphrasing, and uncited quotations. Ms. Trump’s speech falls under inadequate and uncited paraphrasing, meaning she changed a few words but never gave credit to Ms. Obama. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie defended Ms. Trump by noting “93% of the speech is completely different than Michelle Obama’s.” But he completely missed the point because it’s not the 93%, it’s the 7% that matters. Any plagiarism, even if it’s just a small portion, still constitutes plagiarism.

Copyright infringement is, according to the United States Copyright Office, “when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.” When works of art, literature, journalism, music, architecture, and any other work of authorship is infringed, it is the copyright holder’s right to recover damages. This is what Spirit asserted against Led Zeppelin. It said that Led Zeppelin had access to “Taurus” and could easily have applied its guitar riff to the introduction to “Stairway to Heaven.” The jury decided that the riffs were not similar enough, but there have been other cases, like the recent “Blurred Lines” case, where courts have found infringement.