We’ve probably all been schooled on the hazards of plagiarism at some point. It’s common knowledge that to appropriate another’s work as your own—or fabricate a story and pass it off as true — is immoral and it's illegal. Plagiarism is often viewed as more of a concern for the sleep-deprived, caffeine-pumped students racing to meet a deadline on an impossible project, but the fact remains that it’s a mistake many professionals, leaders and talented people make. For writers and artists alike, it’s the gravest mistake to make of all, since the value of any concept, idea or art is in its originality.
But anyone can be guilty of plagiarism and it's indeed a difficult thing to avoid when information, through its easy accessibility, is seemingly free to be used and reused by anyone. Moreover, the exact definitions of what delineates plagiarism are hazy and the laws around copyright and plagiarism are still playing catch-up with the digital age. What’s more or less binding, though, is the moral obligation to be honest about one’s work.
The word plagiarism comes from the Latin word plagiarius, which means “kidnapper” or “plunderer”; the word stems from the root plaga, which roughly translates to “snare net”.
When it’s originality that’s snared, it’s easy to see why taking credit for creating something that already exists is no small blunder.
What’s worst of all is when a person of influence claims another’s work as theirs since, once they're caught, it gives the public just cause to question that person's integrity (as well as their capability) and the slip up can’t usually stay hidden.
Regardless of its extent and gravity, plagiarism can very well be a person’s undoing. The consequences of plagiarism—resignation, legal disputes, soiled reputation, and public humiliation—are, as many of the individuals listed here show, not worth the risk of the crime.
10 Vladimir Putin, President of Russia
In the mid 1990s, Vladimir Putin wrote an economics dissertation on planning in the natural resources sector. Researchers in Washington assert that Putin is guilty of plagiarism for having copied whole charts and diagrams from a text published 20 years earlier by two academics from the University of Pittsburgh, and using them in his thesis. Putin’s academic background is shadowy and little information is publically known about his past. For this reason, the answer as to whether the dissertation was written for a college level course or for the alleged Ph.D. in Economics Putin claims to have remains unclear. While this instance of plagiarism is little known of today, it adds to the long list of incidents that make up Putin’s predominantly bad reputation.
9 Kaavya Viswanathan, Harvard University Student
At 19 years old a sophomore at Harvard University, Kaavya Viswanathan, published her first Young Adult book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life (2006). She received much praise for her young talent but was quickly discovered to have plagiarized whole lines and passages from books written less than 5 years prior to her book’s debut. Salman Rushdie was also among the authors she copied from. Viswanathan issued a public apology for her “internalization” of the passages by other authors but by then her publisher Little Brown had recalled her books and canceled plans to publish a sequel, stunting her young literary stardom into non-existence.
8 Joe Biden, Vice President
In 1988, Vice President Joe Biden was Delaware’s ambitious senator who ran for president. During his campaign for votes in Iowa, one of his speeches was strikingly similar to a speech given by Neal Kinnock, a British politician who had ran against Margaret Thatcher. Biden modeled his speech after Kinnock’s and retold his story of the humble origins of a coal miner’s son. But it wasn’t only whole phrases that Biden copied verbatim; it was Kinnock’s life story that he adapted to sharpen his angle of the working-class citizen turned leader. Biden’s family were never coal miners. His opponent Michael Dukakis caught the slip up and created a video showing the similarities between both speeches. The attack tape received so much media attention that other instances of Biden’s plagiarizing surfaced, including other plagiarized lines and snippets from political speeches, and he was forced to drop out of the presidential race.
7 Jayson Blair, New York Times Staff Writer
Jayson Blair was a prolific staff reporter for the New York Times who was found guilty of journalistic fraud after plagiarizing much of the information featured in over 600 of his articles. He would not only clip lines and whole segments of other newspaper stories but also invented quotes and fabricated events featured in his articles. In 2003, he was put under investigation and his extensive acts of plagiarism were made public. With his career and reputation ruined, Blair was forced to resign from his post.
6 J.K. Rowling, Author of Harry Potter Series
Beloved Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling was accused of plagiarizing the plot of the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, from rival writer Adrian Jacobs’ Willy the Wizard, published in 1987. Jacobs’ heirs sued Rowling in 2009 for 500 million pounds, accusing her of plagiarizing the plotline of Jacobs’ wizard story. Both books feature wizards competing in magic contests and have the protagonists rescue another character from a monster in a bathroom. But the U.S. judge in charge of the case cleared Rowling of all accusations, who found that each book was so distinct from the other that any slight similarities in the plotline couldn't count as plagiarism. Despite the swift dismissal of the case, the event prompted wide scale hypothesising on the potentially derivative nature of the Harry Potter series.
5 Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker Staff Writer
Staff writer for The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer was accused of journalistic fraud in 2012 for having self-plagiarized his own works. Essentially, what Lehrer did was recycle his old articles, which appeared in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and Wired, and published them to The New Yorker blog. If that wasn’t bad enough, it was later revealed that Lehrer fabricated several quotes he attributed to Bob Dylan in his best seller Imagine: How Creativity Works. Having lost his credibility as a writer, Lehrer retired from one of the best paid writing positions in the field of journalism.
4 Britney Spears, Pop Icon
In 2005, songwriter Steve Wallace sued Britney Spears and her record label Sony/BMG Music for copyrighting his song, “Sometimes”. Wallace alleges having submitted his song to a lyrics contest in Pennsylvania in 1997. Britney released the song the following year. Wallace’s only evidence against the pop princess is a ‘poor man’s’ copyright of his work, where he mailed a copy of the lyrics to himself to get a postmarked date. Despite reports saying that the two songs were almost identical, the copyright suit was dismissed in 2005, with Britney’s lawyers insisting that there was no settlement. In a more recent instance, Britney has been accused of stealing the hook to a 1970’s song by the Bellamy Brothers. There are several lines in Spear’s hit single “Hold It Against Me” which parallel the one by the country duo of the same name. The case is open and ongoing.
3 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights Activist
Humanitarian activist and preacher Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will forever be remembered for his relentless fight for equality and his huge successes as a Civil Rights leader. But what is little known of today is that Dr. King was once a student who was accused of having plagiarized. For his Ph.D dissertation, Dr. King integrated the ideas and lines of several different texts to produce his thesis for his degree at Boston University without giving any credit to his original sources. In 1991, after reassessing Dr. King’s dissertation, the university found that despite the paraphrasing, quoting, and direct sampling of information from sources, his acts of plagiarism did not merit a revocation of his degree.
2 Dan Brown, Author of The Da Vinci Code
Internationally renowned author Dan Brown, most famous for The Da Vinci Code, was accused of a total of seven different acts of plagiarism. Four of these accusations turned into lawsuits but each were eventually dismissed. Brown was taken to court for allegedly copying the structure of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. Perhaps as a tribute, Brown named a character in The Da Vinci Code “Leigh Teabing”, an anagram of the names Baigent and Leigh, but claimed to have read their book late in his research. The case was dismissed in 2006 on the grounds that Baigent’s book was a work of nonfiction and that facts are free to be used by anyone.
In another instance, Brown was sued twice by award-winning novelist Jack Dunn for 'plagiarizing' his book, The Vatican Boys; both cases were also dismissed. A Russian historian Mikhail Anikin accused Brown of stealing his term “Da Vinci Code” and his theory that the Mona Lisa’s face actually reflects half of Jesus’ and half of Mary’s. Anikin lost the case. Mark Rosheim's 'Leonardo’s Lost Robot' featured a passage about a robot knight supposedly designed by Da Vinci and the exact, uncited passage appears in Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. While the accusation did not escalate into a lawsuit, Brown’s publisher claimed that despite the passage being identical, it made “fair use” of Rosheim’s work.
1 Barack Obama, U.S. President
President Obama has recently been accused of plagiarizing the theme and structure for his State of the Union address. A speechwriter for former President George W. Bush claims that Obama’s speech employed the theme of “hope and opportunity”, similar to Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address. But in 2010, Bush himself was accused of plagiarizing large passages included in his memoirs. Obama has been accused of plagiarizing before in a 2008 speech delivered in Milwaukee. His speech featured lines and phrases that are almost identical to a speech delivered in 2006 by the Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick. But perhaps these instances can be more readily distinguished as the effects of the oral tradition of speech giving in the U.S. It’s impossible not to follow the same train of thought when addressing the recurring issues that plague a nation. And when the goal is not to present something novel, but to address a long-standing problem, how wrong can borrowing be?