Political Blogs as “Public Domain” Speechwriters?

One of the strangest adjustments for those of us who have written mostly for publication in print venues is the different nature of “publishing” on the Web. The ethics of revising something that you find out is mistaken, want to reword or to take back is complicated. And with Google’s cache feature you can’t ever really, fully delete your “drafts.”

But to what extent are words printed in political blogs owned by anyone? I am very traditional in the belief that these words, written by me, are copyrighted by me (see notice at the bottom of this page). I would think that most bloggers would feel the same way, i.e., “Don’t quote me unless you cite me.”

But in the world of politics, this can become an intricate and ambiguous question. Case in point: A few months ago, Representative Sherrod Brown of Ohio (D-13th Dist.) wrote a letter to Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) concerning the nomination to the Supreme Court of Samuel Alito, and specifically enumerating what Brown represented as Alito’s poor record on labor issues and workers’ rights. Apparently, almost the entire letter was what in traditional publishing would be called plagiarized–that is, it was originally either the ideas or the actual words of a political blogger, Nathan Newman, of nathannewman.org. The Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper revealed the “plagiarism” after officials from DeWine’s office alerted them.

It seems like a straightforward story. As I teach my students, “If you quote someone, put the words in quotes. If you use someone else’s ideas, cite them.” None of them has ever retorted: “But the President does it all the time!” As I discuss in my book BLOGWARS, it is hardly a secret that a large amount of political speech credited to politicians, whether in the form of books*, addresses, letters, memos, policy directives, or debate points, is written by people other than the politicians themselves, from media consultants to staffers to professional speechwriters. There is some cynicism about this process, but nobody thinks of it as a scandal. Not even the most antagonistic and aggressive political reporter will pummel a political candidate by demanding, “Wasn’t that speech written by your speechwriter? How dare you pretend those words are yours?”

UPDATE: To give a speech written by someone you have hired to write for you is certainly not plagiarism. The rules of scholarship (and grammar) are not the rules of law. (I once knew a man who listed on his resume all the “autobiographies” of politicians he had written.) But some of us lament that politicians seem increasingly unable to walk,  chew gum, or give a speech without a staff of writers and consultants.** And I feel discomfort at seeing a pol waxing eloquent about some personal anecdote that is the stuff and the words of another mind. Are we electing the man or the facade? See a chapter on this subject in John Hamilton’s Casanova was a Book Lover.

The same loose rules of attribution might apply to political blogs, if the blogger doesn’t mind or in fact wants to be a very untransparent ghostwriter. Nathan Newman, far from being angry about the “plagiarism,” attacked Senator DeWine and the newspaper story itself, arguing the following:

Who the hell cares if a Brown staffer copied a factual listing of legal cases into a letter? This was hardly a literary blog post using deathless prose for the ages. It was the facts that made this post interesting, not it’s literary value.

But in typical manner, the response of the media is to ignore the substance and focus on some stupid “he said, she said” story.

Guess what, Sherrod Brown’s staffer was lazy and didn’t do a rewrite of my blog post or put in an attribution line. But the report on this story was even lazier, doing an easy “call the campaigns for quotes” story instead of the harder work of dealing with the substance of Alito’s anti-worker legal record.

So the reporter saying that Brown’s letter “was plagiarized” is flatly inaccurate. The reality is that politicians used public domain sources in a host of ways and using my blog post was no different.

We are on new ground here. A purist like me would love to be able to say that the uncited lifting of material, no matter what the source, the destination, or the outcome, is always wrong. But if almost all other forms of traditional political speech are falsely–but with a wink!–attributed to an author other than the original, then why not the content of political blogs?

Perhaps we will see the emergence of another role for political bloggers: open-source or public domain speechwriter. I still think, however, that the authentic creator should at least be consulted about and approve of what we might call the adaptation of his or her words.

*John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage is the most famous example, written by a committee: JFK, however, had no qualms about accepting the Pulitzer Prize for it.

**In point of fact, the Emperor Nero was (allegedly) the first Western politician who did not write his own speeches.

Originally posted January 23, 2006 at PolicyByBlog

Comments

  1. Original Reader Comments (18)

    Interesting post…

    Newman’s point is well taken. The blogosphere seems to be a “straight to the facts” kind of place, as well as “straight to the opinion”.

    One could view the rise of the internet in general and blogging in particular as liberal by definition since they are a marked change from the past. In that light, objections to plagiarism may be discarded in favor of the new informational pragmatism, i.e., they’re just another casualty of a revolution of sorts.

    At a personal level, I agree with your stance.

    Cheers,
    gp
    January 24, 2006 | Unregistered Commentergoldpython

    Interesting idea. Every new technology comes with its own set of problems. I’m reminded of Napster and sharing music and the outcry of musicians whose copyrighted materials were suddenly available to be written on CDs. Never were they denied credit, just money. When money isn’t the issue, and prestige and credit are the currencies generated, is this a bigger issues?

    This is sure to be a hot topic. Technologies dealing with plagiarism on the Internet do exist, and more are sure to come. Digital watermarking is one example. Similar to watermarks in paper money or stationary, these marks make it possible to track materials to their original author. The feature allows writers to add hidden messages to visual, audio, image or video signals that will verify their origin. Similar techniques will likely become available for authors, such as yourself, that believe (and rightly so) they should be credited for their original thoughts. ( see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_watermarking)

    Disturbing, too, are technologies that make disguising others’ ideas as your own fast and easy. See this post (http://mp.blogs.com/mp/2005/07/on_blog_plagiar_3.html ) for information on software that can manipulate, randomize or merge text of any content or articles. Supposedly blog-zilla and Ping-Kong are programs designed for “legitimate management of multiple blog sites by publishers” and not for plagiarism…
    January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterow1018

    I agree that attribution is a must no matter what, but I think the most interesting point in this whole situation is Newman’s response to the article, not the so-called plagiarism. Newman hits it on the head when he says that the reporter was lazy because he was focusing on the “scandal of plagiarism” and not the issue!

    Michael Schudson summarizes this trend of American journalism in his book The Sociology of News: “…the emphasis on strategy and tactic, political technique rather than policy outcome, the mechanical rather than the ideological. Focusing on the technical side of politics enables journalists to be professional, because they can remain apart from ‘the conflicts of interest, perspective and value that are the dangerous stuff of political life.'” (pp. 51-2)

    And here is a perfect example of this. Instead of focusing on the “dangerous stuff” of the real issue at stake in Newman’s post and the Representative’s letter, the reporter decided to report on the strategic and tactical aspect of how the representative composed the letter.

    Of course, doing research on a story about Alito’s record of hostility toward workers’ rights would have taken a lot more time than a plagiarism scam… and what if the reporter or editor doesn’t really want to tell that story?
    January 28, 2006 | Unregistered Commentersmarin3

    Well it is true that bloggers want to give their opinions and suggestions about politics without actually being involved. So Newman should have taken this as an honor. His agenda is being put out at the forefront, even though all he did was sit on butt.
    As far as the speech writers for politicians, I think our current president has more than proven that they need them. These people are paid very well and why not? They really have a tough job.
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterharrison72

    If we are entering a post-plagiarism/intellectual property age, what does this say for digital music on the internet? If politicians are free to lift other people’s ideas without their consent, or at least attributing them for their intellectual property, why is downloading different, except for its “economic value?” I think that if we pass off theft of intellectual property as not big deal in Blogs because Blogs are “different,” we should also be able to say that music on the internet is different. I don’t necessarily believe that it is different, but this does raise the question of a double standard. Stealing is stealing. Should we give the people we trust to uphold our laws a free pass when we catch them stealing? I don’t think so.
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjohn444

    Speechwriting can hardly be compared to plagiarism. To plagiarize is to present another person’s words or ideas as your own. When a president, or any other public official, uses the words of his or her speechwriter, that speechwriter has been commissioned to perform the task, to put the officials’ words or ideas into the best presentable format.

    But as far as the issue of plagiarism and blogging, I agree that proper credit should be given when ideas from a blog are presented elsewhere. An original idea is an original idea, regardless of whether it is written on rock or online. Newman’s reference to “deathless prose for the ages” is baffling to me because I have never known plagiarism to be measured by the quality of the writing. A person’s work, their thoughts and the facts they have gathered and organized, must be protected with the same vigilance in an online format as they are in hard copy format.
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHog79

    In the case that is referred to in this post, what interests me is the attitude of the blogger, Nathan Newman. Besides her argument that this blog post has no literature value and is just a list of facts, I think that there may be some other psychological factors. For example, Newman may be at least satisfied to find out that her blogging has caught attention of a politician and may affect local politics to some extent. Actually, to influence politics with their blogging is the wish of many political bloggers.

    But the problem still remains. Not every blogger is as tolerant of plagiarism as Nathan Newman did, even in the case of being plagiarized by public domain speechwriters. There should be a law to protect the bloggers’ copyright as well.
    January 30, 2006 | Unregistered Commentereusuee

    I agree with some of the other posts. This is an interesting argument. I did not realize plagiarism was a problem among the blogging world. I have mixed opinions about this issue.

    In your post, you mentioned, “It is hardly a secret that a large amount of political speech credited to politicians, whether in the form of books*, addresses, letters, memos, policy directives, or debate points, is written by people other than the politicians themselves, from media consultants to staffers to professional speechwriters.” I think, in this case, it is justified that the politician can legally use the speechwriters work. I would imagine the speechwriters legally agree to be the brains behind the discourse of the politician. In essence, the speechwriter gives approval to the politician to use his or her work.

    Plagiarism within blogging is more complicated. I think it is worse when a politician or his speechwriter, a professional, journalist or any other well-known figure fails to cite another’s material within the place of work, on the job or during the process of personal campaigning. In these cases, credibility is an issue. Full citation should be implimented and plagiarism should be enforced if it is conducted. In the case where an individual uses someone else’s idea in a casual discussion within a blog, not representing personal business or politicking, I don’t think it is as important to regulate citations. I may not be thinking straight, but I don’t see much difference between interpersonal dialogue and many blogs. During a conversation, I wouldn’t expect someone to cite me if I talked about a new movie I saw in the theater or the game I saw the night before. I think this concept could apply to blogs. I guess the main problem with this arguement would involve the definition of a casual blog discussion.

    Regardless of my opinion, the Copyright Act, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (http://www.eff.org/bloggers/lg/faq-ip.php), still usually protects any short quotation from an original material as long the author is cited. They say the “fair use” of another’s ideas or material “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” Therefore, to play it safe, bloggers should just cite the original author when using their material.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterNOLA7

    Wikipedia makes an interesting distinction between plaigiarism and copyright infringement in specifiying that, “Plagiarism is a form of academic malpractice”, while copyright infringement is, “the unauthorized use of copyrighted material in a manner that violates one of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights”. In a country that elects its president with the understanding that he or she is the face of a much larger entity, it is understood that the presidency is a collaborative effort. Once elected, the presidential team must work together to ensure that support for the president remains strong. Part of this effort involves using the strength of each member to its fullest potential, including the speech writers. Presidential speeches are not plagiarized because the president is given those words in a non-academic setting and by willfull employees. Of course, none of this applies to Newman’s blog, since he is not an employee of the White House. Being a citizen of the United States does not mean the automatic relinquishing of control over published political views. Lucky for Brown’s researcher that Newman released the claim over his words after the fact.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterdiversgirl

    A poster boy for plagiarism in politics is U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware. In 1988, he was forced to drop out of the presidential race after it was revealed that he used direct quotes from a speech made by British labor party leader Neil Kinnock. It was later discovered that an “attack video” showing the juxtaposition of Biden’s words with Kinnock’s (thus revealing Biden’s blatant theft) was secretly distributed to the press by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who was also running for president. This investigation led to the discovery of other plagiarism-laden speeches and of Biden’s failing a course in law school due to plagiarism. Biden’s theft from Kinnock was of the spoken word and not the written word, but it is still useful to this discussion. Why did that incident garner so much attention in the press? If Kinnock had written those words in a blog, would there have been such and outcry?

    I say “no.” Until blogs gain respect in the msm and public opinion, bloggers should expect that their words will be plagiarized. In order to cease being seen as public domain speechwriters for whoever can cut and paste, bloggers must file (and win) numerous lawsuits against plagiarists at the Supreme Court level. Furthermore, in order to become publicly respected, bloggers must do the opposite of what their intuition tells them: they must become organized. It was not until writers and speakers began demanding protection for their intellectual property that strict laws emerged against plagiarism. Ben Franklin (the image for all that is American), plagiarized most of what he printed in “The Pennsylvania Gazette” by stealing the news directly from other news sources and from letters that passed through the post office. It probably never occurred to him that he was doing anything wrong. What has changed since then? Lawsuits and professional standards. Would-be plagiarists have to be told that stealing other’s words is unethical and illegal regardless of where the words are found. Bloggers have to care enough to voice their opposition to someone besides other bloggers in a way that forces them to listen. Unfortunately, victims like Nathan Newman don’t seem concerned, so it will fall on other bloggers to do the work.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterweezy138

    It is first and foremost sad that some elected government officials aren’t producing their own, original thoughts regarding current events as critical as the nomination of a new Supreme Court judge. Yet Brown was concerned enough about Alito’s labor record and convicted enough to voice his concern to a fellow Congressman.
    Check out the initial report as published in Cleveland’s Plain Dealer: http://www.cleveland.com/news/plaindealer/index.ssf?/base/news/1131445870289970.xml&coll=2
    Secondly, that members of Congress are attending to the views and information published on blogs is a good thing. It proves the increasing role of blogs’ influence on public opinion, and illustrates the importance that bloggers publish sound rhetoric based on well researched and well-cited factual information.
    As an aside, it would be interesting if the party roles had been reversed in this situation, and a Republican Representative had ‘borrowed’ Newman’s words and included them in a letter to a Democratic or even Independent Senator. What would Newmans’ reaction had been?
    It’s PURE speculation, but I doubt Newman would have reacted as forgivingly. I arrive at this speculation based on a glance at Newman’s own home page on the web, http://www.nathannewman.org. Another factor that informs my speculation is one of Newman’s articles he published on-line in 1997, titled “Teamster Scandals and Republicans or why the Republicans should just shut up.”
    http://www.nathannewman.org/other/teamstersGOP.html
    It might be worth mentioning Newman attended Berkeley too. Again, his e-mail address from ’97: newman@garnet.berkeley.edu. So he’s a progressive from Berkely…who I speculate would not have liked to lend his words to a Conservative.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlittle34

    Speechwriters are paid to assist the President in communicating to the American public. Though the words that come from the President may not be his originally, the idea or process discussed usually are his own or associated with his administration. A speechwriter, for the President or any other public official, who will be addressing any public, is usually a talented individual or individuals that are educated and experienced at the communication process. That is what they are hired to do. As mentioned by harrison72, President Bush has greatly benefited from speechwriters. Though a President is elected (hired) to run and make decisions for this country, he may not be the best speaker in the eyes of all of the public. President Bush, I believe, fit that mold and has greatly improved in his public speeches since he first took office due to the assistance from his communication staff. This notion of a President passing off words of others as his own or the idea of this being plagiarism, is ridiculous and a non-issue.

    Now I have a problem with a politician (or even if it were a President) using the words of someone else, which was not one of their speechwriters’ and passing them off as their own without any kind of acknowledgement or credit.

    All of that said, the issue of using words pulled from a blog as someone’s own, especially in a document or public presentation is interesting. The intervention and growth of this new medium will help give birth to such new problems, issues and concerns. Does ownership to ones words posted on an Internet post (public domain) have the same claim as scholarship or publication? Why not? Yes, this is not scholarship work, but it is a product produced by someone and that individual should be given credit unless permission is given by the author for someone else to use as his or her own. If this is a new media and we are going to treat it as such (as seen by politicians that are already using it to assist in public opinion arena), then blogs should be treated just as a newspaper or any other published article would be if quoted or used in public communication. A public speaker, in most cases, would not use the exact words of a published newspaper article and try to pass them off as their own. Just as john444 argues, intellectual property, whether it is music off the Internet or words lifted off a blog, should be treated the same. Why should the content on blogs be treated any differently?

    Relating an earlier issue brought up on this blog of whether this new medium will have an impact on political decision-making, the example of the representative using words for correspondence from a blog as his own to another politician may shine some light on that question. Despite a staff member probably just being lazy and using somebody else’s words, the blog did have an impact on the process of political debate.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBigAL1993

    If Nathan Newman wants to let every representative in the U.S. House copy his writing without giving him credit, I support him. But I agree with PBB/Editor that bloggers (if they so desire) should own their original work, just like everyone else who produces original work but publishes it in traditional forms.

    The comparison between public officials using their own staff’s ideas and using bloggers’ ideas is interesting. But in my mind, it just doesn’t hold water.

    Sure, when you plagiarize, you’re passing off another’s ideas as your own (just as in political speeches). But plagiarism is not illegal because it’s lying. Plagiarism is illegal because it’s stealing.

    The political speechmaking practice may be based on a fiction, but it’s not based on theft. And that’s the difference between using your staff’s ideas (whom you’ve paid and who have agreed to give you their ideas) and using a blogger’s. The blogger hasn’t had any part in the agreement. And that’s stealing.

    If bloggers are to develop as new speechwriters, I hope it’s only with their permission.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterrepublic3

    Bloggers should definitely site the sources that they use. All through academia life, students have been taught to credit the person or source whose ideas and words they are using. What makes blogs so different from this notion? Although it is a new style of media information, it uses all the same rules for writing.
    According to Webster’s Dictionary, to plagiarize is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source”. There is nowhere in the definition that exempts blogs. If blogs are to become a style of journalism, then bloggers should retain the same rules and penalties for plagiarism as other journalists have.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterQTPi1021

    I share the traditional view; that direct quotes should be quoted and ideas cited. The Internet provides a free forum, where anything is instantly “published” and the question arises as to whether protection of intellectual property should be stretched to include works that do not receive royalties. The nature of copyright law and capitalism is that no one should be denied the ability to make money from their ideas in the legally published form (this is not to say that blog posts are illegal, just to differentiate from standard publishing and sharing ideas in the free forum). According to Zelezny, Communications Law. (2004) “The primary purpose of copyright protection is not to make writers and artists rich, but to encourage creative production for the ultimate benefit of society at large by giving individual writers, artists and media organizations control over how and when their works will be exploited (304).” Because the Internet is a free forum monetary gain does not truly apply, unless the information used from the web is then plagiarized and used for exploitation. In order to protect against stealing from the “public domain” there would have to be copyright extension to anything posted on the Internet, but this may prove to be unmanageable as there are new posts everyday. I am inclined to believe that plagiarism online will continue and so long as there is no monetary gain from posting online, although I would like to think that proper respect would be given to the creator/author.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commentervanguard15

    I share the traditional view; that direct quotes should be quoted and ideas cited. The Internet provides a free forum, where anything is instantly “published” and the question arises as to whether protection of intellectual property should be stretched to include works that do not receive royalties. The nature of copyright law and capitalism is that no one should be denied the ability to make money from their ideas in the legally published form (this is not to say that blog posts are illegal, just to differentiate from standard publishing and sharing ideas in the free forum). According to Zelezny, Communications Law. (2004) “The primary purpose of copyright protection is not to make writers and artists rich, but to encourage creative production for the ultimate benefit of society at large by giving individual writers, artists and media organizations control over how and when their works will be exploited (304).” Because the Internet is a free forum monetary gain does not truly apply, unless the information used from the web is then plagiarized and used for exploitation. In order to protect against stealing from the “public domain” there would have to be copyright extension to anything posted on the Internet, but this may prove to be unmanageable as there are new posts everyday. I am inclined to believe that plagiarism online will continue and so long as there is no monetary gain from posting online, although I would like to think that proper respect would be given to the creator/author.
    January 31, 2006 | Unregistered Commentervanguard15

    Blogging, just like many other means, is allowing us to “jump on the bandwagon” of the proverbial expressions that is voicing our opininons, adverstising what we believe in, and to convey our message to the masses in hopes to convert them to ours!

    Of course, political bloggers are really “blogging it up” because, again, this is yet another means of communicating to the public their views on any particular subject matter in chances they will win our vote. Also, to no surprise, females are blogging in large numbers. How many times have you heard that females like to talk a lot? How many times have you heard females voice their opinions (whether we like it, or want it or not)? Way too many times. This is not a surprise to me, or to many, I am sure.

    Blogging is just another means of communication with the masses, and I am certain that there will be something else before long that “they” will come up with to do just about the same thing – COMMUNICATE! And, I am sure that politicians and females will be at the top of that list, also. Will “they” ever stop coming up with new ways to communicate? I do not think so. It is a primal instinct to communicate. Blogging is just another avenue to do so. So, to ever think that communication will cease to exist is only to fool ourselves. For as long as we are able to communicate, we will!
    February 1, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterreactor67

    Who has never committed the sin of “adopting” some other person’s experience as one’s own for the purpose of effective storytelling? Anyone who posts an experience on the Internet is subject to having that done, whether it’s legal or not. The copyright issues will be batted back and forth in the courts for years to come, but the moral or ethical issue is probably going to come down on the side of the “borrowers.” Survey after survey shows how frequently students cheat in school and how frequently people lie in all walks of life. It would surprise me if they held up this kind of lying to any other standard. I cringe, but I know some journalists don’t see it as plagiarism. Generally, I don’t see those people as journalists, but that doesn’t mean the news-using public doesn’t. The ground beneath our feet in terms of intellectual ownership is shifting so quickly and our awareness of those shifts is happening so much faster than it used to. As a writer, I want to own my ideas. But I also know that if I put them on the Web, or on a public corkboard in the library, I lose control over them. A quasi-related issue that I’m really enjoying is that the editors who produce http://www.thesmokinggun.com post the threatening letters they get from attorneys about the content of their site. The letters always say they are confidential and not intended for publication and sometimes even contain threats about what might happen if the threat letters are made public.
    February 7, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa7005

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