Remarkable Cases of Plagiarism in History

The authors of the blog College-Writers.com wrote a detailed article about intentional and unintentional plagiarism. Intentional and unintentional plagiarism is a very common issue in any art and even in the academic world. Some people want to take credit for someone else’s works, while others may accidentally steal some ideas, facing very negative consequences for their reputation.

What Is Plagiarism?

The general definition of plagiarism is an attempt to present somebody else’s ideas as your own. Plagiarism is a reason why we use anti-plagiarism programs as well as why proper citing is so important.
There are different forms of plagiarism:

  • Ignoring copyright rules
  • Claiming someone else’s work is yours
  • Using quotes without quotation marks
  • Mentioning any ideas or concepts without giving credit to the original author
  • Using the same structure of sentences as in the original paper, without citation

Consequences of plagiarism are inevitable. Some examples below show how plagiarism can ruin even the most successful careers.

1. Alex Haley VS Harold Courlander

Harold Courlander wrote more than 30 novels, plays, and papers on sociology. He was an expert in African American, Haitian, Native American, and Caribbean cultures. His The African is a fictional story about slaves who moved to America from their homeland.
Alexander Haley also specialized in history and wrote his Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976. This book became very popular in the United States.
Courlander didn’t know about plagiarism until he saw a TV adaptation of Roots. This miniseries was very popular, and Courlander’s friends told him about it because it was related to his area of interests.
After watching Roots, Courlander was shocked by the number of similarities between his own novel and this miniseries. He bought the book and compared it to his The African. It turned out that Roots not only used his ideas but also had the same characters. Now it became clear that plagiarism was intentional.
Haley was accused of stealing ideas, characters, and certain passages from Courlander. There are more than 80 similar passages in these books, and some of them are almost identical. Expert witnesses from the Columbia University noticed that both books are based on the same historical events, but the plagiarized passages from Roots copied fictional events that were born in Courlander’s imagination.
Haley stated that his book doesn’t borrow any ideas from anyone else’s books, being based on historical events. He said that the controversial passages existed as a part of the African American oral tradition. He denied intentional plagiarism and stated that his book is a result of many years of research. He studied various historical sources on three continents and interviewed experts, drawing his own picture of slavery. However, he didn’t deny the obvious: His book indeed had a lot in common with The African. Therefore, he concluded that someone he’s been working with gave him information from this book. In turn, Courlander claimed that it doesn’t matter how the act of plagiarism happened. Any author is responsible for the content of his or her book, so Haley should verify all the facts before including them in his work.
Courlander said that Haley’s story is just an excuse, so he didn’t change his opinion and sued Haley, claiming that Roots wouldn’t be written without The African. According to Courlander’s attorney, Haley plagiarized characters, language, situations, and attitudes from The African. Haley couldn’t do anything better than to acknowledge plagiarism, and the case ended up with a settlement. Courlander and his publisher received $650,000. This money is worth $2.4 million now. The lawsuit against ABC, which broadcasted Roots, was dropped and the company agreed to pay compensations.

2. Melania Trump VS Michelle Obama

Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Conference in 2016 is a great example of plagiarism in politics. Her speech was almost the same as Michelle Obama’s speech in 2008. Obama has been talking about relationships between children and their parents, work, and respect. Melania Trump used almost the same words in 2016, stealing Obama’s ideas and replacing some details with the story of her immigration from Eastern Europe.
This act of plagiarism was so obvious that it didn’t leave any doubts for reporters and political analysts. Trump’s speech looks like if somebody copied whole paragraphs from Obama’s speech and changed just a few words.
Reporters who attended the conference noticed such a theft immediately. Even though Obama’s DNC speech wasn’t copied word-for-word, the percentage of plagiarised content turned out to be striking — 90%.
However, it’s hard to remember another president of the United States who would have so bad reputation and so many controversies around him as Donald Trump. He built his whole political career on scandals and even now, he’s still under a CIA investigation for obstruction of justice and collusion with Russians. When Obama was asked about this incident, she said that she’s not offended and doesn’t plan to do anything about it.
As for Donald Trump, he reacted to this situation in his traditional manner — blaming the Democrats and Hillary Clinton for “fake news.” Even though his advisors suggested that he fires the speechwriter, nobody was fired, and the Trumps didn’t face any consequences of plagiarism. Nobody knows who is the author of this speech and whether it was edited for correctness, however, in 2016, Melania Trump said that she wrote it herself.

3. Joe Biden

Even before Joe Biden became a well-known politician, he plagiarised his college paper. Many years after, he also stole content from several people during his presidential campaign in 1988.
It’s hard to find a man who was accused of plagiarism more often. The first accusation was a result of several passages that Biden plagiarized from other speakers and used in his own speeches. He was also accused of plagiarising content for his research papers at Syracuse University Law School.
In 1987, Joe Biden delivered a speech that had 90% of content plagiarized from another speech written by Neil Kinnock from the British Labor Party. After reporters noticed many similarities between Biden’s and Kinnock’s speeches, they started investigating Biden’s academic history and it turned out that Biden used to steal somebody else’s ideas during his whole life. For example, he stole content from Robert F. Kennedy’s speech, which couldn’t remain unnoticed by the wide public.
Journalists from The Times started collecting various records, footages, and statements. A disciplinary board in Biden’s college interviewed him, other students, and teachers and found him guilty. It turned out that five pages from his 15-page paper were stolen. The same happened in Iowa in 1987, when Biden delivered Kinnock’s speech with just a few minor changes.
During the 1968 presidential campaign, Kennedy delivered his speech at the University of Kansas. This “Measure of Nation” speech was copied by Biden later. Even though Biden has always been talking about his admiration for JFK, he didn’t give credit to Kennedy, citing him word-for-word.
According to Biden, he didn’t know that his speech repeats Kennedy’s content, and his aids failed to provide the necessary information. He called this situation an accident and said that he’s new to writing speeches. He did the exact same mistake as in his previous speeches that included incorrect attribution.
As for the incident with the Kinnock’s speech, Biden also said that it was a problem with attribution, as he used fragments from Kinnock’s speeches before but forgot to mention Kinnock in Iowa.
Although the Syracuse University’s position was that Biden didn’t plagiarize content intentionally, his reputation was damaged. Kinnock said he was happy to hear fragments of his speech from Biden and that he also used some Biden’s phrases in his campaign. However, Kinnock never forgot about attribution. Newspapers continued publishing new articles about Biden and his academic past, which was a reason why his ratings dropped.

4. Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall is a world-renowned expert on wildlife. She studied chimpanzees for more than 20 years and participated in many programs aimed to protect wildlife, which gave her many awards. However, her credibility was damaged after she published Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants.
Most often, people get accused of plagiarism for using a few phrases written by another author. In this case, everything was much worse, as Goodall copied big amounts of information directly from various websites. Moreover, a part of this content wasn’t from academic sources at all.
One of the sections includes information plagiarized from two different sources without citations. Goodall didn’t use any footnotes or endnotes. Reporters from The Boston Globe realized how unoriginal this book is while studying it for a review. They checked the book with plagiarism scanners and it turned out that most of the book is copied almost word-for-word. Reporters continued to search for sources used by Goodall and found out that she used the content from many books without permission. Goodall admitted that she didn’t attribute some content to the original authors but underlined that she did it unintentionally.
Goodall gave a statement on the radio, saying that it wasn’t an intentional act of plagiarism. She said that it was a well-researched book and she’s sorry for not citing her sources properly. After this statement, Goodall didn’t comment on this situation for a year. Later, she gave her interview to Mosaic and said that she’s not organized, her desk is always cluttered with hundreds of notes, and this may be a reason why she failed to properly cite her sources in the book. She also said that sometimes she forgets where she found some information, no matter if it’s the internet or other books.
Goodall said that plagiarizing content wasn’t her intention, and many professionals believe that she did it accidentally. On the other hand, it’s hard to determine whether some author forgot to attribute some passages or just stole them. According to the definition from the Oxford Dictionary, plagiarism is taking someone else’s work in order to present it as one’s own. There are many citation styles used in the academic world, and their purpose is not to let such incidents happen. At the same time, there is no law that would require everyone to use a certain citation style. Many authors just write a list of used information, and that’s exactly what Goodall did. She listed used sources at the beginning of her book but didn’t use citations after that.
Goodall copied content from dozens of various websites without attribution. She mentioned these authors in her gratitude chapter of Seeds of Hope, but the text itself didn’t contain any citations, even though she used direct quotes. She even copied a part of her text from Wikipedia, which is notorious for its inaccuracy and not used as an academic source. As for the accuracy of Goodall’s sources, Wikipedia is not the only sad example. She also pulled a few statements from Find Your Fate website, which is known for its pseudo-science and astrology.
Not only did Goodall forget to attribute some statements to their original authors, but she also attributed one phrase to botanist Matt Daws, even though he never said it. This information was also copied from a website.
All the authors from this article have something in common: They don’t admit they’ve used someone else’s content until reporters show evidence. In this case, Such evidence of plagiarism was a statement from Kew Gardens. In her book, Goodall wrote that she interviewed botanists who work at this facility, but Kew Gardens doesn’t recall such conversations. This incident made her lose her contract with Choice Organic Teas. She issued apologies and published a new version of her book, with all the necessary citations.
Unlike many other people who got caught on plagiarism, Goodall got off relatively easy. There were no hearings in court, and her great reputation in zoology withstood the impact of this story.
Goodall is still respected among zoologists, but Seeds of Hope remains her most controversial book. Most of the positive reviews are left by readers who purchased the second edition of the book, and many readers are not ready to forgive her.

5. H.G. Wells VS Florence Deeks

Plagiarism is nothing new in literature. There are hundreds of writers from any century who were stealing their content from others. A good example of plagiarism is a controversial situation around Florence Deeks and H.G. Wells.
Florence Deeks, a Canadian writer, read Wells’ book and found out that Wells’ The Outline of History contains some ideas from her own manuscript that was rejected by the Macmillan Company. Wells’ book was focused on philosophy, religion, and culture, addressing the same issues as Deeks’ manuscript. Thus, Deeks concluded that the Macmillan Company used her materials without permission. When Wells’ book was published, Deeks’ work remained untouched.
Deeks’ asked several legal experts for advice and decided to prove copyright violation in court. She also asked Rev. William Andrew Irwin to help her with his great knowledge of plagiarism and research skills. Wells denied any accusations and said that all the ideas of The Outline of History are his own.
According to the court’s decision, Deeks failed to provide enough evidence. There were only a few passages from her book in Wells’ work, and they were not cited verbatim. Deeks drew attention to the fact that the publisher held her work for nine months, which was more than enough for Wells to read it, but appeals in various courts didn’t give any results. Each next decision defended previous decisions, and the Justices dismissed her case with no right to refile it in 1932.
Lord Justice Atkin stated that according to the evidence from both sides, Deeks’ manuscript wasn’t handed to Wells, and he had never used it. All the similarities between these two authors were explained by the “nature of work.” Wells was never labeled as a plagiarist, and his reputation didn’t face any consequences of this incident.

6. Led Zeppelin

Plagiarism is common not only in the academic world and literature but in music as well. Music and lyrics are protected by the law as intellectual property. When listening to Led Zeppelin, it’s hard to understand where is a boundary between plagiarism and original work. Most examples of Led Zeppelin’s plagiarism are too obvious. Even die-hard Zeppelin fans have always talked about it openly, and the band itself was accused of plagiarism more than ten times. Moreover, the most remarkable allegations were about their most popular hits.
For example, a riff from the song “Taurus,” written by the band Spirit, opens Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” According to Spirit, Led Zeppelin stole this riff in 1968 when they’ve heard it during the opening act.
The same happened with “Whole Lotta Love,” which contains plagiarized parts from Muddy Waters and another band, Small Faces. The lyrics were written by Willie Dixon, who gave his permission to Waters and Small Faces so that they could use these lyrics. However, he didn’t give such a permission to Led Zeppelin.
Both cases had enough evidence from the original authors, but only “Whole Lotta Love” was a reason why Led Zeppelin ended up in court. In the case of “Stairway,” Spirit did not have copyright so the song couldn’t be stolen, being in the public domain. In addition, Spirit performed their song live but never recorded it.
Even though Led Zeppelin has proven to use plagiarised lyrics and music, the evidence didn’t illustrate their intention. The band also didn’t copy all the lyrics word-for-word.
According to Alexander Stewart, an expert who testified before a court, almost 90% of the opening of “Stairway to Heaven” is plagiarized, including the same chords, rhythm patterns, harmonic setting, and even the choice of acoustic guitars and strings. Both original song and Led Zeppelin’s version sound classical because there’s no bass or drums. Led Zeppelin has even copied the fingerpicking style of Spirit’s song.
As for “Whole Lotta Love,” it’s harder to define what percentage was plagiarized, as Led Zeppelin wrote original lyrics but added some parts from the Muddy Waters’ record. On the other hand, members of Small Faces stated that Robert Plant also plagiarized some elements of performance and even their singer’s vocal manner.
Willie Dixon filed suits in court, but a jury trial never took place due to a settlement for an unknown amount. Both parties decided to never talk about this incident and not to comment it in media. There were no comments from Dixon or Led Zeppelin about the incident in ten years, but Robert Plant broke the silence after Dixon’s death. New releases of “Whole Lotta Love” included Dixon as a lyric writer and a contributor, however, the band didn’t refer to his original record.
“Stairway to Heaven” appeared to be a more difficult challenge for the band, as a judge said that there’s enough evidence of plagiarism to move this case further to a jury. However, the jury decided against a $550 million request for infringement. An appeal was filed in 2017, and it’s still pending.

7. Archibald Carey Jr VS Martin Luther King Jr

Even icons of the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King Jr were accused of plagiarism. The most well-known charge was related to his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, which had a lot in common with Archibald Carey Jr’s speech entitled “Let Freedom Ring.”
King used fragments from many different sources when working on his speech. The final part became the most debated section, as it repeats the original author verbatim. However, some people believe that King didn’t plagiarize content. They say that sometimes different authors may have completely similar ideas, even though such situations occur rarely.
Archibald Carey Jr and Martin Luther King Jr died before the plagiarism issue became widely discussed, so Carey never sued King or asked for a compensation. King will be always known for his activity as a Civil Rights leader and pastor. The most important truth about King is that he made America a better place.

8. Megan McCafferty VS Kaavya Viswanathan

After Kaavya Viswanathan graduated from high school, she started writing a novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life. This novel became very popular, and Viswanathan got accused of plagiarism by her favorite writer.
Megan McCafferty stated that Viswanathan stole content from two of her novels about Jessica Darling. It this case, it was obvious that Viswanathan didn’t just forget to use citations or quotes. Viswanathan’s book contains more than fifteen sections which are completely identical to McCafferty’s book Sloppy Seconds and Second Helpings. The Harvard student newspaper included a review of Opal Mehta in their weekly issue. Reporters noticed many similar phrases and even big blocks of stolen content. McCafferty also wrote an article where she compared her book with Opal Mehta side-by-side.
When people see two books compared to each other, plagiarism becomes obvious and impossible to hide. Viswanathan used the same words as McCafferty and didn’t even changed many sentences. McCafferty’s content makes up to 80% of the Viswanathan’s book.
McCafferty realized that somebody used her book only when the newspaper published the article. However, McCafferty decided to give the young author a chance and said that she doesn’t believe her plagiarism was intentional. She also noticed that she wouldn’t like to be defined by such a mistake.
McCafferty was surprised that the publisher has let this happened. Little, Brown, and Company had many editors who could check the manuscript and see that it contains the plagiarized content.
Viswanathan said that she never wanted to steal McCafferty’s content, though she admitted that she read both her books. She said that McCafferty is one of her favorite authors and she was surprised to see so many similarities. According to Viswanathan, she committed plagiarism unintentionally.
Despite her lawyer’s advice, McCafferty decided that Viswanathan has learned her lesson. However, even though McCafferty dropped her suit, the publisher was not happy about such a scandal and closed a contract with Viswanathan. Opal Mehta copies were recalled, an upcoming movie was never filmed, and Viswanathan’s career quickly came to its end.

9. Thomas Childers VS Stephen Ambrose

Stephen Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers became quite popular due to a series on HBO. Another Ambrose’s book, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany sparked controversies due to the content which was plagiarized from Thomas Childers. The latter claimed that his book is based on actual events, and Ambrose’s book had too many in common with his work.
According to Childers, Ambrose stole material from his book Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II. Reporters from The Weekly Standard quickly detected plagiarism and published an article with their analysis. Forbes also decided to investigate these accusations. Experts from the magazine agreed that Ambrose couldn’t write so similar passages without having the original book in front of him. Not only did Ambrose copy Childers’ ideas and characters, but he also used the same language and copied almost every word.
According to Forbes, Ambrose’s book contained four plagiarized paragraphs that were stolen from six different authors. It also turned out that Ambrose plagiarized even his doctoral dissertation.
Childers never considered this mistake intentional and he said that editors are more guilty than the author. Thus, he didn’t press the issue. In turn, Ambrose said that he had an impact on Childers’ writings as well. He stated that he always uses footnotes. However, he failed to use quotation marks when necessary. He admits that it’s unacceptable but he doesn’t agree that it’s a copyright issue.
Ambrose’s career wasn’t damaged by the consequences of this incident. His reputation was hurt, but he’s still a respected author who continues to write about WWII.

10. Jill Lepore VS Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria is a famous journalist from CNN and The Washington Post, who was accused of plagiarism many times. According to these allegations, he stole content from newspapers and other journalists.
There were more than five publications that contained plagiarism. One of the most well-known incidents was about Zakaria stealing content from Jill Lepore from The New Yorker. Her article was rewritten by Zakaria and published in Time. Both authors were citing Adam Winkler, a scholar from the UCLA Law College. Zakaria didn’t copy the content verbatim, rephrasing some sentences, so there is a chance that Winkler just gave the same information to both journalists.
Zakaria claims that he never thought about stealing someone else’s content. However, he admitted that the incident was his fault, though he didn’t agree that he did it intentionally. He issued a statement where he apologized to Jill Lepore and his readers.
While CNN and Time investigated this incident, Zakaria was suspended for a week, however, both companies found him not guilty and continued to work with Zakaria. He returned to his TV show, but independent journalists were not ready to forget about this story and continued investigations. As a result, Zakaria faced new accusations.
Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Slate continued to work with Zakaria but reacted to the new accusations by posting a warning message on their websites. They warned their readers about plagiarism in some of Zakaria’s articles.

Lessons to Learn

All writers can learn from these cases. Plagiarism is a very serious issue in the academic world and literature. Some writers and artists lost millions of dollars because of plagiarism, even though some of them stole someone else’s ideas unintentionally. Just a few unattributed paragraphs may lead to canceled contracts, lawsuits, and a bad reputation among the audience.
Everyone should always check citations and make sure that all the content is properly attributed to original authors. If you don’t know how to check your papers for plagiarism, you can order professional help online.

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