About twenty years ago I was invited to be chief guest at the award ceremony for the Science Fair at the middle school in the district where I live. The invitation was not due to my non-existent eminence but because the head of the science department knew me (he had participated in the summer program I ran for many years to teach inquiry-based teaching techniques to area middle and high school science teachers) and knew I would be agreeable to doing it as a favor to him.
So I put on a jacket and tie and gave a speech that seemed to be fairly well received by the captive large audience of the students who took part in the fair and their families who are the only ones who attend such events.
I then promptly forgot about the whole thing. Some five years or so later, my own daughter was in that same middle school and took part in the science fair and so now I was seated in the audience, with the chief guest that year being a local physician who happened to be an acquaintance of mine. As he gave his speech, I thought it seemed familiar and it slowly dawned on me that he had basically ripped off my speech, even some of the jokes. (Yes, I do tell jokes on occasion.)
After the event, as the crowds mingled in the hallways talking to friends, I ran into the physician and he looked embarrassed at seeing and said sheepishly that he had been in the audience the day I spoke and that he had liked my speech so much that he had used some of it for his speech when he was asked to be the speaker. He must have figured that the odds of my actually being in the audience were small enough for him to take the risk.
I was amused by the whole affair and even slightly flattered that he had thought my speech was not only good enough to plagiarize but that it had been memorable enough for him to recall it years later when he needed a speech. I had no real reason to be angry. After all, I had not suffered because of his actions. It was not like I was on the lecture circuit with this speech making money off it. It was just a one-off thing.
But ripping off speeches seems to be not uncommon these days. Because speeches are recorded and put on the web, you have many more speeches to choose from. But the downside is that you can also get caught more easily since more people can see your own speech and recognize it. And that is what happened to one Georgia Tech sophomore who apparently gave a boffo speech to the first year students, have it go viral on YouTube, only to have it later revealed that a very similar one had been given earlier by his high school debate team coach in Arizona at an earlier time.
There are now suggestions that the student speaker had got permission from the original speaker to use some of his material. But that got me thinking as to whether getting permission is sufficient to remove the ethical problem.
While it is better to get permission from the original creator than to swipe their work without permission, it addresses only one aspect of the issue because we are ignoring the student’s audience. The expectations of the audience are an important factor to consider. Even if the student got permission from the original speaker, the audience was under the impression that the student was conveying his ideas in his own words. That implicit trust is broken when a speaker rips off someone else’s words without acknowledging it. A person giving a speech is not like an actor or singer performing, where it is known that they are likely using someone else’s creative output and that their contribution is in the way it is delivered.
For example, people got annoyed with Beyonce at the 2012 presidential inauguration not because she did not write the words or music but because she was lip-synching when they expected a live performance. The fact that the performance was her own, just recorded earlier, and that she was lip-syncing to her own voice did not matter. The audience was expecting a live performance and did not get one. There was similar grumbling when it was revealed that when Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman played at the 2008 inauguration, what came over the loud speakers was a pre-recorded version.
It is the same with speeches. We do not expect blinding originality from them. All speeches are cobbled together from a variety of sources But we do expect that speakers have taken the trouble to put it together by themselves, and give it their own personal distinctive flavor.