Melania’s alleged plagiarism highlights dangers

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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Internet had a field day with Melania Trump’s convention speech this week, following the discovery that passages showed striking similarities to both Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic convention and Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (The Trump campaign has so far denied charges of plagiarism.)

The woman who wants to be the next first lady is far from the first political figure to be hit with charges of plagiarism. But whether you’re a national figure or a private citizen, plagiarism can have serious financial consequences.

Direct financial penalties for plagiarism are usually the result of stealing substantial amounts of work that’s protected by copyright, says Neil Rosini, an attorney at Franklin, Weinrib, Rudell and Vassallo, specializing in intellectual property.

“If you infringe copyright and there’s no defense to it, such as ‘fair use,’ you can be sued, and there are damages,” says Rosini.

Without a lawsuit, damage to your reputation from being labeled a plagiarist can have indirect financial consequences, he says.

Politicians hit hard by plagiarism

Politicians are one group particularly vulnerable to the reputational hit from plagiarism, says Rosini.

“Politicians have been called to account for borrowing from others’ work in their speeches. That certainly doesn’t help their political prospects any,” he says.

That’s probably not the case with Melania Trump — it appears the biggest fallout for her will be lots of laughs on the Internet at her expense. But the consequences for most people accused of plagiarism are no laughing matter, including serious career hurdles that can hamper a person’s ability to make a living.

1. Losing your job. Depending on your profession, clear-cut cases of plagiarism can result in being sanctioned or fired. University professors, religious leaders, researchers, media professionals and others who create original work for a living can easily find themselves unemployed for representing others’ work as their own.

For instance, in 2014, Marie-Louise Gumuchian, an editor for CNN, was fired for plagiarizing “about 50 stories,” according to a release put out by the company at the time.

So if you happen to be in one of these industries and you do have undiscovered instances of plagiarism in your past, it may be smart to keep an emergency fund ready.

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2. Losing a professional membership or certification. Getting a professional certification or license often requires a big commitment of time and, often, money. Many membership or certifying bodies have rules against plagiarism, and there can sometimes be harsh consequences. According to an article in the North Carolina Law Review, one attorney in the District of Columbia was disbarred for billing a client for a plagiarized brief.

The CFA Institute, which oversees the CFA Charter that gives me the letters at the end of my name, has strict policies against plagiarizing the work of others, as do many other professional organizations.

3. Being expelled from school or losing a degree. Most people know that plagiarizing assignments in school can get you expelled. But it’s also possible to have a degree revoked, even years later, if it’s discovered that you plagiarized the work that earned it.

One high-profile example was former U.S. Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont., who had his master’s degree from the Army War College revoked in 2014 following revelations by The New York Times that he had apparently plagiarized his final paper. The incident led Walsh to withdraw from his senate race.

4. Failing a background investigation. Applying for a job that requires a security clearance or passing a rigorous background investigation? Documented cases of plagiarism fraud can be considered disqualifying.

For example, the Background Investigation Manual from the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training lists plagiarism as a potential issue for applicants.

Rosini’s advice on plagiarism?

“Don’t do it,” he says. If you do feel the need to use someone else’s work, “often, accusations of plagiarism can be avoided simply through attribution.”

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Follow me on Twitter: @claesbell.

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