On Thursday 4th June 2015, I had stumbled on a long thread of heated debates and arguments on a Facebook group. The whole hullabaloo was caused by an accusation that Buhari’s historic quote in his inauguration speech “I belong to everybody, but I belong to Nobody” was plagiarised from the lines of a particular lyrics titled “perfectly lonely” by John Mayer. Buhari’s words were said to have been plagiarised from the words and he could be sued for plagiarism. For ease of comprehension, the said words are reproduced below.
Buhari: “I belong to everybody, but belong to nobody”
John Mayer: “I don’t belong to anyone, no one belongs to me”
The author of the controversial post was a learned colleague and further alleged that the purported plagiarism could make Buhari liable for criminal or civil sanctions. So, I joined the debate and pointed out to her that the words were not plagiarised and that plagiarism is rooted in ethics and not law and therefore could not be the basis of any civil or criminal action. It was at best a misconduct that could be punished in literary and academic circles as such with severe reputational damage to the plagiarist.
However, the author of the post who happens to be the “owner of the group” shut me out of the group and as I heard deleted my contributions to the debate, so I never bothered to find out how the debate ended.
Following the shutting down of Linda Ikeji’s blog for plagiarism sometime ago, the various discussions online showed that very few Nigerians (including lawyers and self acclaimed academics) understand the meaning of the concept of plagiarism and its implications. Many mistake it for copyright infringements though both concepts may overlap or occur under the same situation.
Plagiarism is a concept rooted in ethics and involves passing off the intellectual property of another as one’s own. It could be words as alleged in the Buhari speech saga, ideas or images etc portrayed by the plagiarist in the manner suggesting he is the originator or creator of the idea.
Copyright infringement on the other hand is any activity(ies) that violates the rights of a copyright holder. Every copyright holder (usually the originator of the work) is clothed with rights by the law to solely exploit their works for financial benefit.
Copyright is therefore a concept rooted in law and a right that could be violated where another person illegally performs any activity(ies) for the exploitation of the work, without the prior permission of the copyright holder. Such illegal activities are broad and numerous, however the law permits an exception to fair use.
It must be pointed out that a set of facts could give rise to both plagiarism and copyright infringements, since both concepts relate to creativity and ideas. However, it is not every plagiarism that is a copyright infringement and vice versa. Copyrights could be violated without the occurrence of plagiarism and plagiarism could be committed without violating copyrights or in fair use of copyrights.
However, in circumstances where both concepts occur in a given set of facts, such plagiarism could be relevant in a legal action to determine whether any copyright infringement(s) had occurred and for determining the amount to be awarded as damages for the copyright violation.
The major dividing line lies in the fact that even works that are not subject to copyright protection could be plagiarised. For example use of a work without copyright protection with no acknowledgement of the originator whatsoever. Furthermore, plagiarism could also occur even where a copyright holder has permitted the use of a work. Again, this could occur where another person passes off a work that is protected by copyright as his/hers without acknowledging the originator even with the permission of the original owner.
I believe the two scenarios above explain better the reason why plagiarism is rooted in ethics. In the absence of legal protection, ethics, morals and mores etc become the means of social control.
Is Buhari Culpable?
It must be stated that determining whether plagiarism has occurred is quite divisive as can be seen in the Buhari speech brouhaha. The test for plagiarism will differ for various classes of professionals. The test in literary circles would differ with that in the academia or journalism. This is because issues of ethics and objectivity are not subject to a given measure like the law. It varies with individual and industry standards of ethics, objectivity and morality.
However, for the purpose of this discourse, we shall employ the criteria used by the Indiana University of Bloomington, School of Education, available on www.indiana.edu/~istd/hints.html
It recognizes three main types of plagiarism, word for word plagiarism, paraphrase plagiarism and sneaky plagiarism. Word for word plagiarism occurs where the alleged plagiarist borrows ideas from the original source material and takes seven or more words in sequence from the original source material with neither bibliographical or in text citation
In the case of paraphrase plagiarism, the alleged plagiarist borrows ideas from the original material and this is neither acknowledge via bibliographical or in text citation, while in sneaky plagiarism as the name implies, there is an acknowledgement of the source material in a quotation or paraphrase but another part contains paraphrasing plagiarism or word for word plagiarism.
Applying this test to the issue at hand, makes Buhari not culpable as the neither the ideas expressed in Buhari’s words nor the context they are used is same with that of John Mayer though there is similarity in words. In Buhari’s words, the idea expressed is the president’s loyalty to all Nigerians and while that of Mayer is amoral or at best sexual. The contexts are different. While that of Buhari is political, Mayer’s is of affection.
On similarity of words, Mayer’s words are nine in number while Buhari’s words are eight. Only three words appear in both viz; “I”, “belong” and “to”. The level of similarity and the fact that these similar words are not even in a sequence surely leaves no doubt that the words were not plagiarised.
Furthermore, to prove plagiarism, there must be the element of knowledge of the source material but a wilful passing off of same by the plagiarist as his own work without acknowledging the originator. It is my opinion that in view of the difference in the idea, context and words it is very unlikely that Buhari’s speech writer had John Mayer’s words in mind when he/she coined that expression.
It must be stated that though plagiarism on its own is neither a civil wrong or criminal act capable of any legal action whether civil or criminal, it is on its own a grave literary and academic crime which when proved leaves severe reputational destruction on its paths. An earliest example is the former Prime Minister of Romania Victor Ponta who renounced his doctorate degree in December 2014, following a 2012 indictment he plagiarised his PhD thesis.
On 2nd April 2012, Pal Schmitt the then president of Hungary was forced to resign following massive protest over a plagiarism scandal. He was quoted to have said “… my duty in the current situation is to terminate my service and resign”.
Earlier in March 2011, the then German Defence Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg was forced to resign by overwhelming public and political pressure following an indictment for alleged plagiarism in his doctorate degree thesis (did I hear someone ask for an African example?).
So the author does not in any manner whatsoever seek to downplay the seriousness of this cankerworm in literary, academic and creativity circles. Therefore object of this discourse is to add to the body of knowledge on the subject of plagiarism so we can understand it better and avoid it.
Postscript: This Article was first published in the back page of the Sun Newspaper of Monday 8th June, 2015 under the title “Still on the Buhari Plagiarism Brouhaha” by the Author and is reproduced here under a different title and slightly edited to align with the legal leanings of the blog. The original article can be read on http://sunnewsonline.com/new/?p=122731 or in the Leadership Newspapers via leadership.ng/opinions/439152/439152
June 9, 2015