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Is it Plagiarism When Politicians Copy Ideas?

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Jun 26, 2013 2:45:00 PM

Mayor Dennis O'KeefeA recent article on the CBC website talks about a heated political exchange that's ongoing in St. John's in New Brunswick, Canada as it prepares to vote for its mayor.

The incumbent, Mayor Dennis O'Keefe (pictured right), has proposed a plan for a mayor's advisory committee aimed at reducing crime. That proposal is set to be debated this evening at the city council's meeting.

However, one of the council members, Sheilagh O'Leary, who is also running for mayor, felt that the proposal was a bit too familiar and mirrored closely one proposed by Jonathan Galgay, a candidate for city council.

Though O'Leary has said she supports the committee, she doesn't think that O'Keefe should get the credit for the idea, calling it "political opportunism."

But is this really plagiarism, as the CBC says in its headline calls it, or is it something else? At the very least it's a very unusual usage of the word, especially considering it's a political idea, but it's worth taking a look to see if it fits the definition.

The Issue of Political Plagiarism

Most political plagiarism scandals are fairly traditional in nature. They involve speeches or written text that closely match other, uncited material.

However, as I've said before, I'm inherently suspicious of political plagiarism scandals because they tend to focus more on the politics involved than any actual wrongdoing. In most cases, political plagiarism scandals are more about gaining an upper hand over someone politically than it is discerning any truth.

There is reason to suspect that in this case as well as the allegations come not from the alleged victim or a neutral 3rd party, but from a direct political opponent.

The source of the allegation automatically calls the allegation into question but the idea itself is worth exploring: If what O'Leary said is true, does it amount to plagiarism?

A Tricky Issue

On the surface, it at least looks possible that it could be plagiarism. By most definitions of the word, ideas can be plagiarized just as easily as words and images.

Though such plagiarism may not be copyright infringements, as ideas aren't protected under copyright law, if one were to take ideas without attribution in an academic paper or even a novel, they would likely be called a plagiarist and even face repercussions for it.

However, the standards of plagiarism (outside of the legal standards) are set largely by one’s working industry. Novelists have a different standard than lawyers, which is different from researchers, which is different from politicians.

The question becomes whether or not this alleged repurposing of an idea is outside the bounds of what could be considered plagiarism in politics.

The answer is less clear but it looks like that allegation is questionable at best. Politicians routinely take ideas from one another. For example, in the U.S., states routinely copy one another's best programs without much credit given and politicians routinely use ideas from their peers and colleagues to push a similar agenda.

Simply put, most people don't expect that a politician's proposal or plan is wholly their own. It's widely anticipated that they will get ideas from others. However, most politicians also don't claim ownership over the ideas they present, at least not directly.

If O'Keefe claimed to have come up with the idea and is deliberately slighting a junior politician, that could be seen as plagiarism, but there's no indication that he did that.

While it certainly would have been better if O'Keefe had involved Galgay and worked with him to make the proposal happen, dubbing it plagiarism, in this context, feels like a stretch and risks identifying many other currently acceptable behaviors in the political arena as being plagiarism as well.


While all of the details that led to the allegation aren't available, the nature of the allegation combined with the source seems to point to the case being political in nature.

While politicians can certainly plagiarize and have been caught doing so in the past, politicians also copy each other's ideas routinely and often with little or no attribution.

Simply put, accusing a politician of plagiarism on the same grounds we accuse a researcher makes little sense. Not only are the expectations of the audience different, but so are the expectations of others in the field.

The real danger with these kinds of cases is not just letting possible plagiarists escape punishment but also devaluing the term "plagiarism" by using it as a political attack.

Plagiarism, by its nature, is a very serious ethical offense and using it to attack others or describe less-serious issues risks desensitizing others to it, making life much easier for real plagiarists that come later.