This week’s controversy regarding whether or not Melania Trump plagiarized portions of a speech by Michele Obama gave us an opportunity to review the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement.
Plagiarism is the act of taking someone’s words or thoughts and presenting them as your own without acknowledging the source/giving credit. Example: Quoting passages from Shakespeare, presenting them as your own, and not acknowledging or giving credit to Shakespeare. Engaging in plagiarism is not necessarily something the plagiarist can be sued for in court of law; it is more of a moral or ethical wrong. It can, however, result in dismissal from your job or a failing grade in school or other repercussions.
Copyright infringement is a legal doctrine regarding the act of appropriating (taking) someone’s copyrightable content such as words, pictures, photographs, music, etc. without permission of the copyright owner. A copyright infringer can be sued for monetary damages and a court can order an infringer to stop the infringement.
Thus copyright infringement can occur even if the infringer gives credit or attribution to the source – so long as the underlying work was copyrightable, protected by copyright, not in the public domain, and the author of the work didn’t give permission to use it.
Likewise, plagiarism can occur even if there is no protectable copyright. For example: copying one of Shakespeare’s sonnets without giving credit to Shakespeare can be plagiarism even though it’s not copyright infringement because the sonnet is in the public domain.
As for the accusations that Mrs. Trump plagiarized one of Mrs. Obama’s speeches, you be the judge. Here is a link to a side-by-side comparison of the two passages in question:
Remember: the main test for copyright infringement is whether the allegedly infringing work (in this case, Mrs. Trump’s speech) is “substantially similar” to the underlying or previous work (here Mrs. Obama’s speech). The test is not identicalness.