Object Lessons: Rantings of a Lone Pamphleteer
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Plagiarism? No.

Today's Lessons: Defining plagiarism in political speeches. What objects are gifted to the White House stay in the White House.

Has Obama plagiarized Cesar Chavez by using the term "Yes we can"? It's an interesting question that is quickly dismissed. The litmus test for plagiarism is a string of six or more words lifted exactly. Being only a three-word phrase, "Yes we can" does not meet this test, as it is a short and common phrase.

As for the Massachussets' Governor Patrick's phrases, not only did Obama have permission, the ideas lifted are hardly original. Note that the second test of plagiarism is lifting an original idea from another, and really only applies to words (or art, or music) presented in some permanent form. A speech does not qualify unless and until it is published by the plagiarist (TV recordings notwithstanding). Obama's use of the phrases does not meet the definition.

By the way, plagiarism is an ethical term, not a legal one. Plagiarism is viewed by the courts only in the context of Copyright law, or the theft of intellectual property. Because Obama had permission, because he is not directly earning money off of his campaign speeches, and because to date he has not published the Governor's words as his own, Obama has not committed plagiarism.

Senator Clinton is hardly in a position to talk about theft, anyway. When they left the White House, they took about $30,000 worth of property that didn't belong to them. From the NY Times in February 2001:

"In the latest criticism over their departure from the White House, the Clintons faced questions today about taking $28,000 worth of furnishings, which two donors were quoted as saying had been intended to become part of the permanent White House collection, not gifts to the Clintons.

"The disclosure, reported in today's Washington Post, came three days after the Clintons said they would pay $86,000 to cover the value of gifts they received last year in an effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The couple had originally sought to leave with $190,000 in gifts."

In addition to this felony-level theft, their aides committed about $15,000 worth of vandalism in the White House.

The Washington Post, which reported this story first, has since removed the article from its website. It is still available at High Beam.

Now I understand why she's running: She needs more new furniture.

(Extra Credit Lesson: Find any follow-ups to the Clintons' theft of White House property; please comment on this blog if you find any proof that they returned property.)

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