In the scheme of Arctic melting, a nuclear Iran and Syrian atrocities, the matter of Sen. Sotto’s alleged plagiarism seems inconsequential. Yet since it has occupied our national conversation I thought I would weigh in.
To recap, in his four part series on his opposition to the RH Bill, the venerable Senator, or more correctly his speechwriters, saw it fit to ostensibly lift not once, not twice but thrice paragraphs from bloggers Sarah Pope, Janice Formichella and non-blogger Robert F. Kennedy. The Senator defended himself on the grounds his lines were either from non-entities simply mouthing off and therefore not worthy of attribution; or were not in the original language. It was a storm in a teacup (Attribution: Unknown) and much ado about nothing (Attribution: William Shakespeare?). Needless to say this did not help his cause.
His staff were, to their credit, more forthright. They claimed plagiarism is rampant in the Senate and that everything -the Bible, our Constitution, the human genome- “started from a little copying”. All humans, they went on to intimate and I am not kidding, in fact are plagiarists in that we were created in the image and likeness of God. Way to go, guys.
As a writer, I am not as offended as perhaps I should be on plagiarism. I am just uncertain why anybody should choose to go there. It could be simple laziness, why reinvent the literary wheel when somebody has already done so and more eloquently. It could be the need to embellish an otherwise mediocre message. It could be the requirement for higher prose to transport an ordinary idea. It could be hubris and the longing to be seen as more erudite than one is.
Sen. Sotto undoubtedly had important things to say on the RH Bill as he has occasionally on other legislation. However, and this is the tragedy, because of the manner in which he chose to frame his arguments and the way he defended himself when exposed; we have all but lost what it is he wanted to convey. All we can remember is he took stuff without leaving a credit behind.
Many otherwise wholesome people have fallen to this same temptation to give loft to their work by lifting from others- one local Supreme Court Justice and one big time corporate CEO come to mind. It happens in other fields of endeavor: A U.S. Court recently ruled that Samsung copied the Apple designs in their mobile phones and tablets. In the commercial world there are laws to protect patents and copyrights for music and other forms of artistic expression.
As a non-lawyer, I am uncertain when plagiarism ends and when copyright starts but the notion is the same, the idea of stealing intellectual property. It is also unclear what the penalty should be: In the Apple/Samsung matter, it was $ 1 billion in damages, in the case of our SC Justice many Congressmen felt it amounted to the impeachable offense of betrayal of the public trust. With Sen. Sotto, being the butt of social media and “cyberbullies” should be punishment enough.
Plagiarism is ultimately about cheating. The question is when if ever is it trivial, is it at the level of looking over your classmate’s shoulder on how to spell “fraud” or is it when winning the Pullitzer on the strength of cribbed material? How does a privilege speech by a Majority Leader on matters of national consequence rank?
As a politician, Sen. Sotto probably does not appreciate creative expressions have a meaning and an ownership although as a former artist he should. Having been shown that this is so, he should have done the noble and humble thing which was to apologize, fire his writers, and move on. That he chose otherwise and defend what was an untenable position was not a winning strategy and is a statement in itself.
As a people we elect leaders to speak for us on issues to which we cannot give voice. It is therefore disillusioning when we discover they cannot do so without resorting to disguise. For on all their future utterances, on whatever subject, we are now left to wonder, did they really say that?
That is why, perhaps, plagiarism is no trifling matter. So if you are to copy, at least tell us who you copy from.