Who’s Line is It?

“People will accept your ideas much more readily if you tell them Benjamin Franklin said it first.”

– David H. Comins

I love quotations! I enjoy collecting and categorizing them. I enjoy reading them. And I use them – liberally – in my writing, speaking and training. I strive to always cite the source of the quotation, but this is not always possible or practical.

With all due respect to Mr. David H. Comins – and I assume that he is a decent, honest and wise man – I could not easily locate any biographical information on him. I remembered this quote and I verified it on the Quotations Page website. But a Google search and a search on Amazon.com did not turn up any background information on Mr. Comins.

So… is my audience more interested in Mr. Comins or in his pithy comments?

And, since I am not a citizen of the fine state of Massachusetts, I must admit that I knew nothing about their current Governor Deval Patrick – up until this past weekend, that is. The 24-hour news cycle continues to churn out stories about Sen. Barack Obama’s alleged plagiarism. Obama “liberally lifted” a riff that Gov. Patrick had previously used – “Don’t tell me words don’t matter.”

As was to be expected, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was watching and vetting Sen. Obama’s speech that night and quickly alerted all parties who would listen – not to mention all ships at sea – about this “outrageous plagiarism.” Full of high dudgeon, they demanded that justice be served – or at least that the press properly criticize Sen. Barama on this matter.

The press did indeed criticize Sen. Barama on this matter. They also played a video tape of Gov. Deval Patrick when he delivered these lines and compared it to Sen. Obama’s speech in Wisconsin. It is almost scary to see how closely Sen. Obama invoked not just Gov. Patrick’s words but also his tone of voice and even his body language.

The question is: “Was this plagiarism?” The answer is: “I don’t know. It depends…”

I am not a legal expert. Clearly, Sen. Obama used someone else’s words and thoughts without giving proper credit. However, Gov. Patrick’s words were not entirely his own either- he was citing the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson and others to make the point that words do, in fact, matter. They matter very much. But so does honesty. And giving proper credit when it is due.

To give him some credit, Sen. Obama did admit that he and Gov. Deval Patrick share thoughts with each other and that Gov. Patrick had indeed used this “riff” before. So… why didn’t Sen. Obama give proper attribution to Gov. Patrick?

Here’s what Gov. Patrick had to say about this:

In a telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Patrick said that he and Mr. Obama first talked about the attacks from their respective rivals last summer, when Mrs. Clinton was raising questions about Mr. Obama’s experience, and that they discussed them again last week.

Both men had anticipated that Mr. Obama’s rhetorical strength would provide a point of criticism. Mr. Patrick said he told Mr. Obama that he should respond to the criticism, and he shared language from his campaign with Mr. Obama’s speech writers.

Mr. Patrick said he did not believe Mr. Obama should give him credit.

“Who knows who I am? The point is more important than whose argument it is,” said Mr. Patrick, who telephoned The New York Times at the request of the Obama campaign. “It’s a transcendent argument.”

A transcendent argument? Did Sen. Obama’s speech truly lie beyond the limits of ordinary experience? I don’t know. It was certainly a moving moment and helped to fortify his rebuttal to Sen. Clinton’s criticism that he is “all about words” while she is “in the solutions business.” But it was someone else’s riff and Sen. Obama should have given credit to Gov. Patrick. Even he admits that – now. After the fact.

But how should he have credited Gov. Patrick?

I know that I would not have credited Deval Patrick just before or just after I used that “riff” – it would have destroyed the magic of the moment. A live speech should be theatrical. If it lacks a certain sense of drama, why deliver it in the first place? Just email it. No, Sen. Obama seized on the dramatic possibilities of these words and he electrified the crowd.

But he still needed to give Gov. Patrick credit for his thoughts. How?

He could have included credit in his written press briefings. Most important speeches are written and distributed to the press prior to delivery. The press would have eventually discovered this “plagiarism” on their own – better to be proactive and tell them in advance!

He could have credited Gov. Patrick later on in his speech. Citing Gov. Patrick as the source is secondary to the point. Gov. Patrick said so himself:

“Who knows who I am? The point is more important than whose argument it is,” said Mr. Patrick.

All of which reminds me of another famous quotation:

“It is amazing how much you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

– (Former) President Harry S. Truman

It is much easier to cite your source material in writing. That’s why we have Footnotes and Appendices. That’s why we use the Italic font and Indentation to clearly separate our thought from another’s – in writing. You should never take credit for someone else’s ideas – especially when you use them to boost your own credibility or for your personal gain.

So… Mr. David H. Comins – forgive me if I use your pithy quote (“People will accept your ideas much more readily if you tell them Benjamin Franklin said it first.”) in a future talk without giving you credit. I will not take credit for your words. But I will say, “I once read a quote that said…”

I hope that will will be sufficient. What do you think?


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