Unattributed Witticisms in a Graduation Speech:

Eric Muller (IsThatLegal?) points to more unattributed copying in a dean's graduation speech -- but this is copying of someone else's witticisms, rather than of someone else's serious analysis.

I'm not sure whether such copying is particularly bad. Witticisms, jokes, and other amusing turns of phrase lose much of their charm if you need to prefix them with "As X said" or "This reminds me of Y's joke" or "Here's a joke that Z tells" -- especially if you need to repeat these lines a couple of dozen times in the course of a speech. In practice, we tend to avoid giving credit by the simple expedient of not knowing whom to credit; precisely because people retell jokes without attributing them, we usually have no idea who first said something. But what if you know the source? Or what if you can find it by googling? Do you have an obligation to track down the sources and give them credit in the speech, even if that means boring and annoying the audience?

Now one reaction might be "tough luck": If you don't want to give credit, make up your own gags, or omit them altogether. But speeches like this are an odd genre -- they are generally expected to have some wit in them, but they must often be written by people who aren't professional wits. We can reasonably demand, I think, that a professional comic come up with his own material; I am told that comics who are known for stealing material are condemned by their fellows. But should we really ask this of the many people whose non-comedy jobs nonetheless require them to give speeches that include some comic relief?

Recall also that of the two chief harms of plagiarism -- harm to the reader, who is led to give the plagiarist undeserved credit for originality, and harm to the source, who is denied deserved credit for his originality -- only the second is potentially present here. People generally don't expect humor to be original (again, possibly except when a professional comic is speaking); if they give the speaker credit, it tends to be credit for selecting good gags, not necessarily for crafting them. So is this harm to the original source serious enough to require (1) boring speeches, (2) speeches punctuated with annoying giving of credit, (3) speakers investing a huge amount of effort in coming up with their own gags, something that isn't in a dean's job description, or (4) professional gagwriters hired by graduation speakers?

Finally, if I'm right that most of us don't come up with our own jokes, it's pretty likely that the person from whom the work is copied isn't the original author of the gag. If one is writing a scholarly article, the solution is to drop a footnote just in case (such footnotes are much less distracting to readers than verbal footnotes are to listeners), or to invest some effort in deciding who the gag's original author may be. But I'm not sure that the same should be required for graduation speeches. (Reprints of the speech are a different matter.)

Or am I mistaken? Should we really have a give-credit-or-discard-the-gag norm, even in oral presentations? If so, what if you know the gag isn't yours, but you don't know whose it is; how much of an obligation do you have to try to track down the original source? Should this norm extend to television and radio comments, or is broadcasting time so limited that you can drop the attribution there even if you can't in a commencement speech?

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