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Notable Cases of Plagiarism in History

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Bad actors who claim to be artists will take credit for other’s works of art. This thievery, accidental or not, extends to music, publishing, speeches, and more. Some who are accused of plagiarism make honest mistakes, while others intentionally steal the content and hope their prestigious status will save them. 

What exactly is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is when an individual attempts to pass off someone else’s ideas as their own. This is why proper citing and the aid of anti-plagiarism software are essential to avoiding theft.

Common forms of plagiarism include:

  • Claiming another’s work was done by yourself.
  • Including concepts, ideas, or words from another without giving proper credit through citation.
  • Including a quote without providing quotation marks.
  • Copying a sentence structure of a source without citation.
  • Ignoring “fair use” rules

No one is safe from the consequences of plagiarism. These ten examples show, that once caught, plagiarism can ruin a career and careers of those stolen from.

#1 Alex Haley’s Roots VS. Harold Courlander’s The African

Harold CourlanderSource: Gf.org
Courlander wrote "The African" as a work of fiction, originally.

Harold Courlander was an American writer who authored more than 30 theatrical productions, novels, folklore tales, and sociology papers. His expertise included Haitian, African Caribbean, Afro-American, and Native American cultures. Courlander wrote The African, a fictional account of the slaves’ journey from Africa to the United States.

Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was an American writer and journalist who specialized in historical novels. He wrote the 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The book has become synonymous with U.S. slavery and the toll in took on African slaves.

Courlander’s friends tipped him off to the potential plagiarism 

Courlander first discovered the plagiarism after watching the televised rendition of Roots. The miniseries was a hit, Courlander’s friends recommended he study the miniseries as it related to his academic studies.

After seeing the similarities between the miniseries and his novel, Courlander bought a copy of Roots and compared it to The African. His discovery was startling. The book borrowed from his ideas, and even copied the character types. There were enough similarities to convince Courlander that Haley intentionally copied his work.

Courlander and his publisher Crown accused Haley of stealing ideas, passages, and characters from his book The African. The similarities between Roots and The African are striking, and the case ended in a copyright settlement.

The plagiarism is visible when comparing both books

Courlander did not claim the novel was copied in its entirety but did accuse Haley of copying ideas from more than 80 passages in his book. The most striking similarity between Roots and The African is in the passage describing lice on the slave ship. 

Here are the excerpts from both books:

The African compared to Roots Publitas
Haley manipulated the original book by changing some of the wording around.

Expert witness, Michael Wood, Columbia University Professor of English, testified:

The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and the television dramatization of Roots is clear and irrefutable." (Courlander v. Haley, 1978)

Woods conceded that both novels borrowed heavily from historical accounts which are not eligible for copyright protection. He did clarify that the plagiarized content was not historical accounts but fictional elements unique to the author’s imagination.

Haley initially denied copying intentionally

Haley initially stated his book was based on historical events and was not a reflection of any author’s previous works. His concluding remarks at the end of Roots state:

 "To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents." (Harold Courlander, et al. v. Alex Haley, et al, 1978)

Those documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous lifestyles, cultural history, and such that give Roots flesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.

Haley claimed he never intentionally plagiarized Courlander’s work, or any other works of African-American literature. He researched American slavery voyages from Africa. His sources were from handwritten notes provided by interview subjects, hours of speaking with slave descendants, and historical records.

Alex HaleySource: Black History Now
Haley's roots was found to be largely taken from Courlander's "The African"

"Somewhere, somebody gave me something from The African. That’s the best, honest explanation I can give. "(School Library Journal, 1979)

Courlander insisted that it didn’t matter whether someone gave the information to Haley. It was his responsibility to verify all facts and historical accounts. He believed Haley used this as an excuse and cover up his infringement

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What were consequences of Haley’s plagiarism?

Courlander claimed Haley plagiarized a large percentage of his book. Courlander sued Haley in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York for copyright infringement and plagiarism. In his pre-trial memorandum, Courlander’s attorneys stated:

"Defendant Haley had access to and substantially copied from The African. Without The African, Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could have written Roots without The African…Mr. Haley copied language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character." (Courlander v. Haley, 1978)

Haley insisted that his novelization of slavery and their voyage to the U.S. was entirely drawn from interviews with slave descendants, researching historical documents, and his own family experiences.

Courlander receives vindication for proving Hayley plagiarized

The copyright case never reached a jury verdict. Haley’s lawyers advise him to settle the lawsuit at risk of losing half his profits from television networks that aired dramatized version of Roots. He reluctantly acknowledged some of the content in Roots contained similar material found in Courlander’s novel. Lawyers stated in a news release:

 Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African…their way into his book. (School Library Journal, 1979).

Judge Robert J. Ward approved a settlement after both parties failed to agree to his proposed arrangement. Courlander and Crown Publishing both received $650,000 (valued at $2.4 million today) from the defendants, novelist Haley and his publishers, Doubleday and Dell. Courlander and Crown Publishing dropped their lawsuit against the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) for the televised rendition of Roots and agreed to compensate both plaintiffs.

#2 Melania Trump plagiarizes Michelle Obama’s 2008 keynote address

Michelle Obama and Melania Trump
Obama gave a speech in 2008 that Trump is accused of taking from in her speech in 2016.

Plagiarism accusations are no stranger to politics. One of the most modern cases involves former First Lady Michelle Obama and, the current, Melania Trump.

It was almost the same speech, at the same type of event, but for a different party

During the 2008 Democratic National Committee Conference, Obama spoke about the strong values she learned from their parents. She spoke about hard work, treating others with respect, and instilling hope in their children.

In 2016, Trump addressed the Republican national conference in much the same way. She also conveyed the same message when describing her immigration from Slovenia to the U.S. 

The plagiarism was apparent to political pundits and reporters

Journalists who covered Trump’s speech noticed similarities to a speech they covered several years ago. It appeared as if speech writer copied a large paragraph from Obama’s 2008 speech. Trump’s speech could be juxtaposed with Obama’s speech and the almost exact same language is heard, largely in the same tone with only a few words switched out.

Reporters who attended the 2016 RNC felt had heard the speech once before and started comparing past keynote addresses and discovered a large passage was roughly 90 percent copied from Obama’s speech during the 2008 DNC.  

Transcript evidence of both speeches

Compared below, it’s easy to see the similarities in both speeches. 

Keynote Addresses from Michelle Obama (2008) and Melania Trump (2016). Publitas
Compared below, it’s easy to see the similarities in both speeches.

While Obama’s DNC speech was not copied in its entirety, politicians estimated seven percent of the content was regurgitated through similar ideas and paraphrasing, but the single paragraph in question was 90 percent plagiarized by Melania Trump.

A small controversy in a larger Trump firestorm

Donald Trump has been a controversial figure since before he announced his candidacy, and his entire 2016 campaign, and first year in office were marred in scandal, after scandal. Some of which (i.e. Russia, obstruction of justice), are still ongoing today. Obama, when asked whether she was offended by the plagiarism and whether she planned any legal recourse, told reporters she didn’t feel offended and planned to let the matter drop.

Trump, now the republican nominee, was angered by the accusations that his wife’s RNC speech was plagiarized, but, he didn’t take any actions other than condemn the Clinton campaign for instigating “fake news.” His campaign advisors recommended firing the person who wrote the speech. No one was fired, and nothing came from the demands. Neither Melania nor anyone responsible faced any serious consequences. No one knows for sure who wrote the speech or if it was even edited for clarity and correctness.

Donald and Melania TrumpSource: Time.com
Donald Trump is no stranger to controversy.

Melania Trump finally broke her silence in an interview to NBC’s Matt Lauer. She admitted to writing the speech herself and never edited it.

"I read once over it, that's all, because I wrote it…with (as) little help as possible." (Vitali, 2016)

The event hurt their credibility and hindered election focus, but the public was no stranger to Trump controversies, and Trump went on to win the presidency. 

#3 Joe Biden: Serial Plagiarist 

Joe Biden’s infractions date back to his early years in college, and the habit followed him to the 1988 Presidential Election. Biden plagiarized a college paper and lifted content from more than six people during his campaign.

Biden was accused of multiple infractions during his academic and professional career. Three particular occasions are particularly notable; Once during college, and twice during a failed bid for the Presidency.  

Joe BidenSource: Biography.com
Biden has been accused of plagiarism multiple times during his political career.

Biden’s plagiarism is first discovered in school

Biden’s academic plagiarism came into light after he was accused of lifting several passages of his speeches from other speakers. During his first year at Syracuse University Law School, Biden was accused of plagiarism content in his research papers. Biden wrote a fifteen-page law school faculty report titled “Tortious Acts as a Basis for Jurisdiction in Products Liability Cases.” It was published in the Fordham Law Review in May 1965.

During a speech he delivered in 1987, Biden used more than 90 percent of a speech by Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labor Party. Reporters heard similarities in the senator’s speeches and started investigating whether this was a common occurrence for the Democratic-hopeful. The New York Times discovered Biden’s academic past after a confidential source leaked it to the media. Biden’s Kennedy speech was discovered the following morning.

If these two instances were the only times Biden plagiarized content, he may have left the controversy unscarred, but he was caught lifting content from Robert F. Kennedy’s “Measure of Nation” speech.

Reporters catch Biden’s plagiarism on the campaign trail

The Times collected evidence from campaign trail footage, historical records, and college statements to prove Biden plagiarized multiple sources. In college, a disciplinary board investigated the infraction, interviewed Biden, and questioned teachers and students. The board found him guilty, and the final report stated:

[He] used five pages from a published law review article without quotation or attribution’ and that he ought to be failed in the legal methods course for which he had submitted the 15-page paper. (Dionne, 1987)

During Biden’s 1987 Iowa speech, reporters noticed the speech sounded identical to the one Neil Kinnock delivered to the Welsh Labor Party during his campaign slightly earlier the same year.

1987 Campaign speeches by Neil Kinnock and Joe Biden. Publitas
Compared below, it’s easy to see the similarities in both speeches.

During Kennedy’s run President in 1968, he delivered speeches to Des Moines and at the University of Kansas about the measure of a nation. Biden was outspoken about his admiration for Kennedy and often used sentences from the candidate’s speeches, but he went overboard in a California speech and didn’t attribute.

Biden plagiarizes an earlier campaign speech from Robert Kennedy. Publitas
Biden seemed to have taken a lot of Kennedy, but never attributed him.

Biden claims his plagiarism was a simple mistake

Biden claimed he was unaware at the time he plagiarized content from Kennedy’s campaign speech, because his aides forgot to include an attribution note in the senator’s copy. He claimed the college situation was an accident and that he was new to writing, and also used the same excuse for both of his campaign speeches. Past speeches included attribution, and the senator made a mistake with attribution.

As far as Kinnock, Biden believed the accusations were taken out of proportion because he had used them in previous speeches and attributed them to Kinnock. He did not use attribution in the Iowa speech.

Biden loses a presidential bid as a consequence.

Syracuse University college stated they believed he never intentionally plagiarized content and forgot to attribute sources. Kinnock told reporters he was flattered Biden used parts of his speech during the campaign trail. Both men had similar agendas and frequently borrowed from the other’s campaign promises. The difference is Kinnock never borrowed without attribution. Biden’s consequences were severe as a presidential campaign magnifies all a candidate's past. Newspapers continuously reported each case and dug up more. He had few strong supporters, and reports focused on his campaign promises, caused him to ultimately drop out of the race on September 23, 1987. 

He told reporters that his campaign was injured by “the exaggerated shadow” of his past transgressions. Biden did go on to become Vice President, serving under Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017.

#4 Jane Goodall VS. various uncited statements

Jane GoodallSource: janegoodall.org
Goodall is one of the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees and African wildlife.

Jane Goodall studied chimps in the wild for more than 20 years. Her fight for animal protections earned her numerous prestigious awards for honor, and compassion. She lost some of that credibility for plagiarizing a large portion of her book Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants.

Her plagiarism is a classic case of not citing your sources

Most plagiarizers are accused for lifting a few sentences from one or two authors. Goodall took sources directly from more multiple websites and publications including some that are not academic or peer-reviewed.

One included a single plagiarized section taken from two other sources without attribution. Her introduction section lists 19 pages acknowledging the sources she drew from and included in the book. There were no citations, endnotes, or any type of list citing the sources she used.

The Boston Globe reporters noticed the similarities while researching Goodall’s book for a review. They ran the content through plagiarism scanners and found a much of the book was copied verbatim. Reporters investigated the sources she failed to attribute and discovered the content was used without permission. Goodall acknowledged her mistakes but does not believe she plagiarized any content. She accredits it to not-attribution, a situation she defines as different from intentional plagiarism. She gave a statement to National Public Radio addressing the charges.

"The Washington Post did not go as far as to call this a case of plagiarism. The details still aren't clear. The passages described by The Post as, quote, ‘unattributed borrowing’ range from a few phrases to a whole paragraph. One came from Wikipedia; others, from websites. This was a long and well-researched book, and I am distressed to discover that some of the excellent and valuable sources were not properly cited, and I want to express my sincere apologies." (Goodall, 2013)

Goodall remained silent for nearly a year after her statement. During an interview with Mosaic, she told him she isn’t as organized and meticulous as she should be, and that her desk is scattered with notes and research. Therefore, her book included so many quotes without attribution.

"I am not methodical enough, I guess. In some cases, you look at my notebooks, there’s no way you can tell whether this is from talking to somebody or whether it was something I read on the internet. In the future, I shall be more organized even if I don’t have time. I shall certainly make sure I know who said something or what I read or where I read it." (Nicholls, 2014)

Goodall said she never intentionally meant to infringe on another author’s copyright.

It's generally believed Goodall’s intent wasn't to steal ideas

Many professionals question whether Goodall plagiarized content. Understanding whether an author intentionally copied another’s work or accidentally forgot to attribute isn’t always clear or easy to determine. Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as:

 The action or practice of taking someone else's work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one's own; literary theft. (Oxford, 2017)

While there are several citation styles designed to prevent plagiarism, there are no laws demanding their use. Some authors simply use a list of information they read. This is the case with Goodall’s book. She gave acknowledgement in the first part of the book but failed to use citations throughout the publication or at the end.

The evidence against her is very apparent

The most noticeable plagiarized content comes from a statement borrowed from Choice Organic Teas. 

Jane Goodall vs. Choice Organic Teas. Publitas
Goodall appears to have copied directly from the website.

Another section was reproduced in its entirety and posted on the same websites. This time, Goodall borrowed her phrases from Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World.

"Seeds of Hope vs. Big Green Purse" Publitas
Goodall appears to have copied directly from the book in question.

Seeds of Hope included these authors in the gratitude section, but Goodall never cited the direct quotes at the end of her book as required by law and recommended by several academic style guides.

All research writers know Wikipedia is off-limits as an academic source. This didn’t hinder Goodall from quoting directly from the site without attribution. She used information about the 18th-century botanist John Bartram from Wikipedia’s website without attribution.

"Seeds of Hope vs. Wikipedia". Publitas
Goodall appears to have copied directly from Wikipedia in this instance.

This time she paraphrased a few words but used the rest of the content verbatim. While the content is short, it is still copyright infringement. Goodall also talks about trees and mythology in her book but doesn’t use academic resources. She pulls directly from Find Your Fate, a site known for astrology and opinionated content. Here, she plagiarized a statement about sycamore trees in Ancient Egypt.

"Seeds of Hope vs. Find Your Fate". Publitas
Goodall appears to have copied directly from the website again, only changing a few words.

Seeds of Hope includes plagiarized content from the English Crown. The Royal Botanical Gardens in London plays a key role in the Millennium Seed Bank. Botanists carefully cultivate seeds to withstand harsh climates and protect only source of vegetation should the apocalypse happen. She attributes a single passage to botanist Matt Daws of the Kew Gardens. Only, he never said it, and Goodall took the content from a Kew report.

"Seeds of Hope" vs. Royal Botanic Garden, Kew. Publitas
Goodall appears to have copied directly from the website again, only changing a few words.

Seeds of Hope is a story about the botanists working in the Queen’s gardens. While she may not have plagiarized Queen Elizabeth herself, Goodall did copy content from the gardens. 

Goodall loses endorsements and appearances….For a while

None of the author’s realized their content was copied until reporters found the similarities. The only source who spoke out in defiance was Kew Gardens. Goodall claimed the content in her book came from botanists at the facility. They claim to have no recollection of the statements. The negative news coverage was hurtful. Goodall lost her contract with Choice Organic Teas, had to issue a public apology, and lost several speaking engagements. Goodall later released a revised copy of the book, complete with citations and references.

Jane Goodall is still widely respected.Source: unitar.org
Goodall gives a speech to the United Nations on preserving wildlife.

Goodall ultimately got off easy

Goodall escaped most repercussions. She didn’t have to settle in court, and most of her colleagues forgave her infraction. Her reputation as a foremost scientist in zoology saved her from a doomed career. 

The only repercussion to follow her still is the respect she lost from readers. More than 80 percent of the positive reviews are by readers who bought a copy of the new edited version that incorporated citations. While her reviews are mostly positive, there are some readers who believe she cannot be easily forgiven. 

#5 Florence Deeks’ The Web of the World's Romance VS. H.G. Wells’ Outline of History

Plagiarism isn’t a recent phenomenon. Writers have plagiarized content for centuries, as is the alleged case against literary legend H.G. Wells.  Florence Deeks’ The Web of the World's Romance explores the contributions women made to culture and the arts, and Deeks’ work shows women’s importance.

Deeks discovered the plagiarism while reading Wells’ book

Canadian writer Florence Deeks accused Wells of stealing her ideas from a rejected manuscript content submitted to the Macmillan Company. Deeks read a copy of The Outline of History and noticed several common ideas from her manuscript. 

Florence Deeks Source: revolvy
Florence (right) sits with her sister, Annie.

The Outline of History is a two-part series subtitled "The Whole Story of Man" and "Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind." Wells wrote the book to inform readers about religions, cultures, countries, kingdoms, and philosophies At this time her book was never published, and the draft was left untouched.

She was convinced the Macmillan Company shared her book with Wells without her permission.

The original author’s case

Deeks conferred with legal experts and decided her only course of action was resolution in court and help with proving copyright infringement. She requested Rev. William Andrew Irwin, associate professor of Old Testament Languages and Literature at the University of Toronto.  Deeks believed Irwin’s expertise in research and plagiarism would win the case. Wells denied the claim, and insisted he originated the ideas for The Outline of History.

The court determined Deeks didn’t provide enough evidence to back up her claims. Deeks sued the Macmillan Company and Wells in Ontario, Canada trial court. She claimed the nine months the publisher held her was time enough for Wells to read the content. A judge ruled that there were few similar passages and no verbatim wording. The books were similar in nature, but the similarities were coincidental and not plagiarism.

Deeks’ case was dismissed due to a lack of evidence

Deeks’ manuscript was never published. Ontario’s court defended their decision to deny her claim based on lack of evidence and the United Kingdom’s 1911 Imperial Copyright Act.

Copyright in a work shall be deemed to be infringed by any person who, without the consent of the owner of the copyright, does anything the sole right to do which is by this Act conferred on the owner of the copyright: Provided that the following acts shall not constitute the infringement of a copyright…(i) any fair dealing with any work for the purpose of private study, research, criticism, review or newspaper summary. (WIPO)

H.G. WellsSource: victorianweb
Wells is best known for his masterpiece, “The Time Machine”.

Deeks filed an appeal with the Ontario Appellate Division. The appeals court dismissed the case without granting a hearing. Appellate judges determined the trial court made no administrative errors in its ruling.

Deeks was ultimately defeated, and Wells was never convicted as a plagiarist

With two major court losses in Canada, Deeks turned to her last resort. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, England serves as the British Empire’s court of last resorts. She filed an appeal with the Justices in 1932. The Justices took under two months to form a decision and dismissed her case with prejudice, meaning she could not refile in any other court. Lord Justice Atkin wrote the consenting opinion for the Privy Council.

So far as that goes, the Courts have accepted the evidence of Mr. Wells and the evidence given by the Macmillan Companies, and they have come to a conclusion quite definitely that the plaintiff's case is unfounded and that the manuscript was not handed to Mr. Wells, and that Mr. Wells had in fact never used it. The case made in this respect is quite insufficient to displace the conviction that is derived from the direct evidence that there was in this case no copying in fact.

The suggested similarities can be explained by the nature of the work, which has common elements, and by the fact that both writers must have had recourse to authorities which were common to both.(Deeks vs. Wells)

The Justices ruled that no evidence other than literary criticism was submitted by Deeks and said evidence was not admissible in a court of law. They upheld the lower courts’ decisions.

#6 Led Zeppelin VS. Various blues and folk artists

Led ZeppelinSource: pitchfork
(left to right, John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, John Bonham, Jimmy Page)Zeppelin has been accused of plagiarism so many times in their career, fans jokingly call them “The Best Cover Band in the World”.

Musicians must be careful when choosing lyrics and instrumentals. Words and melodies are copyrighted and protected under federal and international laws.

Led Zeppelin: Plagiarists, or tribute artists?

Led Zeppelin found it difficult to identify the difference between original work, theft, and paying homage. Zeppelin’s plagiarism cases were always rather obvious. Fans who listened to the group’s music quickly discovered the usage and openly talked about it. The band is accused of plagiarizing more than ten songs during their career. A few of the most notable allegations include some of the band’s biggest hits.

"Stairway to Heaven”

Zeppelin was accused of stealing from the band Spirit, using the “Taurus” opening guitar riff for “Stairway to Heaven.” Spirit believes the group stole it after opening for their 1968 act featuring the song in question. Fans for both bands say they hear the resemblance in both songs.

“Whole Lotta Love”

Zeppelin was accused of another similar incident nearly twenty years’ earlier. Involving a song written by Willie Dixon and recorded by both Muddy Waters and British band Small Faces.

The song’s recording history

  • Muddy Waters (1962) – "You Need Love"
  • Small Faces (1966) – "You Need Loving"
  • Led Zeppelin (1969) – “Whole Lotta Love”

Dixon allowed both Small Faces, and Waters to record music for his lyrics, but he never gave permission to Zeppelin. Zeppelin denied plagiarism in both cases. The band believes the groups making the accusations are jealous of their creativity and want to profit from their fame.

[Jimmy] Page's riff was Page's riff. It was there before anything else. I just thought, 'well, what am I going to sing?' That was it, a nick. Now happily paid for. At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that ... well, you only get caught when you're successful. That's the game. (Lewis, 2010)

Zeppelin gets taken to court

The original composers from both cases complained about the obvious plagiarism, but only one actually took Zeppelin to court. Dixon wrote  “Whole lotta love” as a focal point about love and harmony. He believes Zeppelin stole the lyrics after being told they could not use the song. He claimed Zeppelin would never had been an appropriate venue for the song. In the “Stairway” case, the defense didn’t argue against plagiarism, nor did they admit to it. Band members instead claimed the statute of limitations had run out. Spirit never filed for copyright, and the song was in public domain.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in court.Source: rollingstone
A sketch artists captures Plant and Page arguing plagiarism in court.

Further complicating the plaintiff’s case, Spirit never recorded the music and only used it in live performances. Former group member and holder of Spirit copyright Mark Andes, filed a copyright infringement suit against Zeppelin in the U.S. California Central District Court and requested the court grant an injunction against playing the song until the matter was settled in court.

Evidence against Led Zeppelin

Evidence in the Zeppelin cases prove the band used lyrics and instrumentals without attributing the original composer, but it doesn’t show the intention. Many of the notes and words are similar but not verbatim.

"Stairway to Heaven”

Andes called expert witness Alexander Stewart to analyze the two songs. Stewart testified that nearly 90 percent of the opening number in both songs are an identical match.

Nearly 80 [percent] of the pitches of the first eighteen notes match, along with their rhythms and metric placement. The harmonic setting of these “A” sections feature the same chords during the first three measures and an unusual variation on the traditional chromatic descending bass line in the fourth measure. The presence of acoustic guitar, strings, recorder/flute sounds, and harpsichord as well as the noticeable absence of bass and drums lend both songs a decidedly ‘classical’ style, particularly evoking a Renaissance atmosphere. (They also) feature a similar fingerpicking style in the passage’s later appearances. (Michael Skidmore v. Led Zeppelin, et al, 2016)

“Whole Lotta Love”

Copyright infringement often is difficult to identify. This was not the case with “Whole Lotta Love.” Zeppelin’s overall lyrics are unique, but the beat and parts of the content is directly copied from the Muddy Waters song.

"You Need Love" compared to "Whole Lotta Love". Publitas
Zeppelin changes the lyrics slightly, and speed up the melody.

Small Faces band members also note that the beat and lyrics weren’t the only thing copied. Plant used theatrical elements from their concert and copied the lead singer’s popular wail.

Zeppelin settles quietly

Zeppelin often left unscarred by the plagiarism accusations, but, in these two instances, the courts where involved, and the band’s reputation was tarnished. Dixon filed suit in court for the alleged copyright infringement of “Whole Lotta Love”, but the case never made it to a jury trial. Zeppelin settled the suit in favor of the Plaintiff for an undisclosed amount. The court case was sealed and both parties agreed not to talk to the media about the case or settlement.

An appeal is still pending in the “Stairway” case

In the “Stairway” case, Los Angeles district judge Gary Klausner determined there was enough similarities to deny summary judgement and put the case before a jury. Michael Skidmore, Andes trustee, requested $550 million in back time loyalties for Zeppelin’s infringement. The jury decided against the plaintiff. Skidmore filed an opening brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in March 2017, asking the justices to review the case and order a new trial.

The case is waiting for a hearing to be scheduled.

While Zeppelin and Dixon didn’t talk about their case for more than ten years after the settlement, band member Robert Plant spoke out after Dixon’s death. Subsequent releases of “Whole Lotta Love” did list Dixon as a contributor to the album and lyric writer. Zeppelin listed the credits as a token of respect. They did not refer to Dixon’s original song.

#7 Martin Luther King Jr vs Archibald Carey Jr

Even Civil Rights Leaders aren’t immune to plagiarism charges. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was accused on several occasions. His most notable charge was due to the similarities between his “I Have a Dream” speech and Archibald Carey, Jr.’s “Let Freedom Ring” speech.

Martin Luther King JrSource: Wikipedia
MLK gives his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

King’s speech was built from different parts

While King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was inspired or even copied partially from different sources, the ending is the most commonly debated section. Historian Drew Hansen claims this section is almost verbatim and draws heavily on the original author’s own words. Georgetown University Professor Keith D. Miller takes another route. He believes the words weren’t copied. Both authors had the same ideas and used them. While this may be rare, Miller says it does happen.

Side by side, the speeches are too similar for comfort 

"I Have a Dream" compared to "Let Freedom Ring". Publitas
The evidence shows King borrowed heavily from Carey’s original speech. Both endings are nearly identical, and the same “feel” and tone are present.

Both Carey, and King died before the plagiarism allegations were made public. Carey never had the chance to sue King in court or attempt to gain compensation for the stolen content. If Carey would have sued, the case probably would have been dismissed. Miller wrote in his article that "blacks rarely received any justice from the courts. His case would merely be dismissed as not important."

King will always be remembered for his good deeds

King’s reputation as a trustworthy pastor and Civil Rights leader kept any consequences at bay. He never went to court because the original author never realized the content was stolen. He is still remembered as the man he was – an icon who helped make America a better place for all races.

#8 Kaavya Viswanathan VS. Megan McCafferty

Kaavya Viswanathan wrote the popular juvenile romance novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life soon after she graduated high school. She never imagined one of her favorite authors would accuse her of plagiarism.

Subconscious or intentional plagiarism?

Kaavya ViswanathanSource: GR
Viswanathan was found guilty of plagiarizing from McCafferty, one of her favorite authors.

Famed novelist Megan McCafferty accused Viswanathan of stealing content from two of her Jessica Darling novels. This was no simple mistake of forgetting to cite or quote. There were more than fifteen instances where the Opal Mehta content was nearly verbatim copied from Sloppy Seconds and Second Helpings. The Harvard University student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reviewed Viswanathan’s book for their weekly book list. One of the student reporters noticed similar passages from famed author Megan McCafferty. The Crimson immediately released an article showing the plagiarized content compared side-by-side.

When compared, the plagiarism appears blatant

The Crimson compared sections in both McCafferty and Viswanathan’s novels. The wording was used almost verbatim, with the subjected text making up more than 80 percent of the entire Opal Mehta novel.

Here are a few excerpts of the copied text.

Viswanathan's "Opal Mehta" compared to McCafferty's "Jessica Darling" books.Publitas
Viswanathan appeared to copy verbatim from McCafferty's books, changing some minor details.

McCafferty blames Viswanathan’s Publisher

Megan McCafferty Source: GR
Megan McCafferty wrote “Sloppy Seconds” and “Helpings” years before Viswanathan’s book was released, with nearly identical situations and language.

McCafferty never realized the book was plagiarized until The Harvard Crimson reported the incident and her publisher told her about Viswanathan’s statement. She didn’t think the young author intentionally copied her material and was willing to give her a chance.

I wouldn't want to be defined by a mistake made in such a public way…I hope she can move on from this. I hope that for both of us. (Lutolf, 2006)

McCafferty also questioned whether the publisher Little, Brown and Company, or the college student wrote the book. She read an acknowledgement from the agency and found it difficult to believe that a major publisher could let something so obvious get past its editors.

A case of mistaken memory behind the plagiarism?

Viswanathan claimed she never intended to copy the content. She had previously read both of McCafferty’s novels and told the press she must have inserted the content by accident.

When I was in high school, I read and loved two wonderful novels by Megan McCafferty, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, which spoke to me in a way few other books did. Recently, I was very surprised and upset to learn that there are similarities between some passages in my novel…and passages in these books…I sincerely apologize to Megan McCafferty and to any who feel they have been misled by these unintentional errors on my part. (Smith, 2006)

Viswanathan’s consequences were severe, but not from McCafferty

Even though her publisher suggested suing in court, McCafferty decided the case wasn’t worth it and the young writer had learned her lesson, and dropped a civil suit against her. The matter was dropped on the original McCafferty’s end, but Viswanathan’s agents weren’t finished. Little, Brown and Company were not happy to have their name scandalized by the college student. They originally intended to credit McCafferty for the book’s inspiration.

They later decided to end their contract with Viswanathan, cancelled her contract for a second installment, recalled all Opal Mehta copies, and cancelled an upcoming movie about the main character.

Viswanathan’s career was over soon after it started.

# 9 Stephen Ambrose VS. Thomas Childers

Stephen AmbroseSource: Wiki
Ambrose is a historian who wrote “Band of Brothers”, but even he has been accused of plagiarism.

WW2 Historian Stephen Ambrose wrote the book “Band of Brothers” that was made into a wildly-popular HBO Series. In another of Ambrose’s books,  The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany, he was accused of plagiarizing a large portion from another historian, Thomas Childers. He claimed the book was a representation of true-life events and there were bound to be some similarities between other books.

Thomas Childers accused Ambrose of stealing several passages from his book Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II. Reporter Fred Barnes discovered the copied content after reviewing both books for The Weekly Standard. He included the plagiarism case in his article, and it was quickly picked up by major publications. 

Forbes was the first newspaper to discover how far the plagiarism stretched. Childers said it was not possible for the passages to be that similar without using his book as a reference. While the theme and content may contain similar events and people, Ambrose’s language was copied almost verbatim.

Evidence of plagiarism

Forbes conducted an investigation and compared content in both books. Reporters read both books and used plagiarism scanners to back up results. The investigation found several paragraphs copied from Childers’ original book.

Here are two examples found in the investigation.

"Wings of Morning" compared to "The Wild Blue" Publitas
With some slight changes in wording, the passages are remarkably similar.
Thomas ChildersSource: UPENN
Childers is also a respected historian of who Ambrose has been accused of plagiarizing material from.

Forbes determined that four passages in Ambrose’s book where plagiarized from at least six other authors. They also revealed his plagiarism wasn’t new and was present in his doctoral dissertation.

Childers never pressed the issue

Childers never took the case to court as he felt it was an honest mistake. Authors tend to misquote and leave out attributions from time to time. Childers believe the editors were more to blame than Ambrose. Ambrose’s first defense was the minor impact his writing had on Childers. He claimed that since only a few passages were involved, it didn’t add up to plagiarism. 

I tell stories. I don't discuss my documents. I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take? I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation. I wish I had put the quotation marks in, but I didn't. I am not out there stealing other people's writings. If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I want to tell and this story fits and a part of it is from other people's writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote. I just want to know where the hell it came from. (Kirkpatrick, 2002)

Ambrose claims he never plagiarized. He used footnotes in his book but failed to enclose quotes in quotation marks. This may be an unacceptable practice, but he claims it isn’t a case for copyright infringement.

Ultimately, Ambrose didn’t suffer any real consequences

Ambrose faced no consequences or lawsuits. Childers simply didn’t believe the situation merited a court battle. Ambrose’s reputation was hurt for a short time, but he earned back his respect and continued to write books of authority on WWII history.


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#10 Fareed Zakaria VS. Jill Lepore

Fareed Zakaria is a journalist with a prestigious career with The Washington Post and CNN, but his reputation came under fire after he was accused of multiple plagiarism cases. He allegedly stole content from fellow journalists at other newspapers.

Fareed ZakariaSource: ABC News
Zakaria has had multiple shows on CNN and has written for multiple media outlets.

Zakaria stole commentary, not just content

Zakaria was accused of stealing material from more than five publications. His most infamous case involved lifting material from Jill Lepore.  The New Yorker editors claimed Zakaria stole content from Lepore’s article “Battleground America.” The content was reused in Zakaria’s “The Case for Gun Control article for Time.

Fareed Zakaria vs. Jill LeporePublitas
Zakaria quoted the same book as Lepore, but then went on to make the same points in commentary.

While Zakaria did not use Lepore’s content verbatim, he did rearrange and change words to make it less revealing. This could be caused by Winkler giving both writers the same information or by copying the original article.

Like many on this list, Zakaria says his plagiarism was not intentional 

Zakaria said he never intended to purposely plagiarize content from anyone. He did acknowledge using other articles as a springboard for ideas, a common practice among writers. There are two main sections in dispute. Both articles contain information retrieved from Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA Law College

Lepore and Zakaria were writing about Winkler’s new book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Zakaria later issued a statement apologizing for his errors.

Media reporters have pointed out that paragraphs in my Time column on gun control, which was also a topic of conversation on this blog, bear close similarities to paragraphs in Jill Lepore's essay in the April 23rd issue of The New Yorker. They are right. I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her, to my editors at Time and CNN, and to my readers and viewers everywhere.(Zakaria, 2012)

Zakaria’s consequences were light compared to others in similar cases

Time and CNN conducted an investigation into the plagiarism claim. They compare both versions of the original article. The Times and CNN suspended Zakaria for seven days while they investigated the accusations. Both publications determined he was not guilty of committing plagiarism and reinstated Zakaria’s employment.

Editors in charge of the investigation called it an isolated event and found “nothing that merited continuing the suspension.”

Zakaria returned to his show The Global Public Square, but the incident opened the door for more accusations. Independent journalism blogs started their own investigations and discovered similar incidents dating back more than six years.

The more recent accusations have caused The Washington Post, Slate, The New York Times, and Newsweek to post warnings on their websites about possible plagiarized content, but none of the publications have stopped working with Zakaria. 

From Newsweek

Fareed Zakaria worked for Newsweek when it was under previous ownership. Readers are advised that some of his articles have been the subject of complaints claiming that they contain material that should have been attributed to others. In addition, readers with information about articles by Mr. Zakaria that may purportedly lack proper attribution are asked to e-mail Newsweek at corrections@newsweek.com.

Learning from high-profile plagiarism cases

Writers should take heed and learn from these cases. Plagiarism is a serious offense. Artists and writers have lost millions due to unfair copying of their work or failing to attribute passages. Authors accused of plagiarizing content also face hefty fines, lawsuit costs, and lost revenue from cancelled contracts, and audiences refusing to buy their books. 

Creators should consider all the consequences before stealing work. Always double check citations and attribution. Give authors credit for their original work, and there’s always a lot of help online if you don’t know where to look.

Works Cited 

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