The great brain robbery
Was Melania Trump genuinely 'inspired' by Michelle Obama's musings, or was she hoping to get away with blatantly pinching the first lady's speech? She wouldn't be the first to stand accused of plagiarism, writes Ed Power
Published 21/07/2016 | 02:30
Donald Trump's US presidential campaign had a rare brush with controversy this week when his wife Melania was accused of plagiarising a speech by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Though Melania's keynote at the Republican Party convention had drawn positive reviews - possibly from onlookers relieved that "the Donald" had shut up for once - attentive listeners were struck by similarities to a 2008 presentation by Michelle Obama to the Democrats.
"My parents impressed on me the value of that you work hard for what you want in life," 46 year-old-former model Melania declared. "That your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise. That you treat people with respect. Show the values and morals in the daily life. That is the lesson that we continue to pass on to our son."
Her words sent buzzers ringing among those whose job it is to remember significant speeches by political wives. Eight years ago, Michelle Obama had shared remarkably congruent thoughts with the Democratic convention as her husband was confirmed as the party nominee for president.
"Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values," Michelle Obama had said. "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."
With the studied slickness of professionals who have spent the past six months putting out fire-fights, Trump's brain-trust responded quickly, if vaguely, to the accusations.
"In writing her beautiful speech, Melania's team of writers took notes on her life's inspirations and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking," said the campaign's senior communications advisor Jason Miller. "Melania's immigrant experience and love for America shone through her speech, which made it such a success."
Trump himself had no quibbles regarding his wife's performance. "Her speech and demeanour were absolutely incredible," he tweeted. "Very proud!"
Should Melania's feel-good burblings rate as plagiarism - the deliberate passing off of another's work as your own - or was she merely honouring Michelle Obama by riffing on the First Lady's pearls of insight?
The question cuts to the essence of the modern debate about intellectual copyright - where is the line to be drawn between ripping off and humbly giving tribute?
Here intention is all important and you don't have to look very far for examples. In 2011 Enda Kenny gave an uncharacteristically loquacious and uplifting speech - so loquacious and uplifting in fact, that many wondered as to the source of the Taoiseach's inspiration. After all, not even his biggest admirers would ever claim the leader of the country was a world-class public speaker. Kenny had, it turned out, regurgitated chunks of an address made by Barack Obama in 2008
But it was okay. Kenny was simply tipping a hat to Obama, one head of government saluting another.
"I have his speech hanging in my office and because he was here, one of the best orators in the world, I used it to honour him," he said. "I substituted 'Ireland' instead of 'America'.
"It was a tribute to him rather than anything else."
The illicit re-purposing of someone else's work has been with us from the moment people started sharing stories and songs around campfires. For as long as there has been civilisation, there have been copycats.
Shakespeare was, for example, accused of plagiarism; TS Eliot's 'The Waste Land' was posthumously revealed to have drawn on the work of lesser-known poets ("Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal," Eliot had written in an essay. "Bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different").
Even Johnny Cash, country music's true original, has had to put his hands up: his 1955 standard 'Folsom Prison Blues' was subsequently found to contain elements of Gordon Jenkins' 1953 composition 'Crescent City Blues'. In fact, Cash had drastically re-worked the material, turning a song about stultifying small town life into the existential scream of a prisoner tortured by the sound of a passing train. It didn't matter: with lawyers smelling blood, Cash caved and settled with Jenkins for about $660,000 in today's money.
However, it would take the creation of the internet to turn plagiarism into something that intrudes in all our lives. With a few mouse clicks it is possible to download bespoke academic assignments from the internet - making plagiarism a recourse for work-shy students as much as for politicians short on inspiration. An unofficial 2011 survey by a Trinity College student publication, for instance, estimated 54pc of undergraduates had engaged in plagiarism; in all some 1,000 students in Ireland have been disciplined for submitting third-party essays in the past six years, the rate of offences climbing quickly.
But, as Johnny Cash's woes attest, it is in music where the idea of originality is most fraught. At a time when it is almost impossible for new artists to attract meaningful attention, a break-out hit is more important than ever.
Yet with so much music already out there, what happens when a songwriter feels there are no good tunes left?
Just how difficult this can be was underlined when in 2014 British soul-man Sam Smith agreed to give a co-writing credit, and 12.5pc royalty share, to Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne after similarities were spotted between his single 'Stay With Me' and Petty's hit 'Won't Back Down' (co-written by Lynne). Through it all, Petty insisted, things had stayed amicable (Smith for his part said he was shocked as he had never heard 'Won't Back Down').
"I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam," Petty wrote. "All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. A musical accident no more no less."
The subject came under the spotlight once again when Led Zeppelin were this year required to go to court to defend themselves against accusations that part of their biggest hit, 'Stairway To Heaven', had plagiarised obscure 70es soft rockers Taurus.
To widespread relief, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Zeppelin's chief songwriters, were found not to have ripped off the other group; at trial Plant made the point that if 'Stairway To Heaven' had any parallel it was with Chim Chim Cher-ee from Walt Disney's 'Mary Poppins' as both utilised a simple chord progression that had been "around forever".
This takes us to the nub of the issue. Ours is the era of the mash-up. Beyonce borrows from indie bands (she reimagined the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, with permission, on her latest LP), rappers rhyme over old samples, authors use Jane Austen as a springboard for their own ideas.
Where does plagiarism end and the free interchange of ideas begin? It is a question Melania Trump's speech writing team are surely asking themselves at this very moment.