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Is Plagiarism a Form of Copyright Infringement?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 21, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A speech delivered by Melania Trump, wife of presidential candidate Donald Trump, garnered all kinds of attention for all the wrong reasons at the Republican National Convention this week. As many have pointed out, a large segment of her speech seems to have been lifted from a speech given first lady Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

A trump aide has since admitted to inadvertently included phrasing from Mrs. Obama's speech after Mrs. Trump read them to her over the phone, explaining why the two speeches sounded so similar. The aide resigned, but could she also be on the hook for copyright infringement? And who owns the copyright to a speech anyway?

Copywritten Speech

Copyright is a legal protection for creators of original works that prohibits others from copying and profiting from their work. Anything from literature to music to sculpture can be covered by copyrights, including speeches, and registration of a work is not necessary to gain copyright protection.

For example, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech is still under copyright. King originally fought Twentieth Century Fox Records Company in 1963 to block unauthorized sales of recordings of the speech. And a judge in 1999 ruled that speeches like King's could be copyright protected, even if given to the public:

A performance, no matter how broad the audience, is not a publication; to hold otherwise would be to upset a long line of precedent. This conclusion is not altered by the fact that the Speech was broadcast live to a broad radio and television audience and was the subject of extensive contemporaneous news coverage.

So Michelle Obama's speech eight years ago would be eligible for copyright protection, and could be enforced by her or the speech writer.

Copied, Written Speech

In order to prove a copyright violation, the copyright holder must show that someone else plagiarized a substantial portion of the copyrighted work. An analysis of the excerpts at issue in Melania Trump's speech showed that almost half of her words were lifted directly from Michelle Obama's speech, and the likelihood of this being a coincidence is less than one in a trillion.

So what is the likelihood of Mrs. Obama suing Mrs. Trump for copyright infringement? Probably just as small. In politics, as they say, image is everything, and the damage to Mr. Trump's campaign has already been done.

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