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Friday, 27 January 2012

'D'oh! stuff up': when Homer meets Hollywood

Merpel wishes they'd checked with her if she could actually read
before putting her Presidential speech on to the autocue
For your Friday reading entertainment, this Kat brings you news of an incident involving an Australian politician, a Hollywood film, a screaming howler and Homer Simpson.

Any ideas?


As widely reported in the Australian media, earlier this week, Anthony Albanese, Leader of the Australian House of Representatives and Minister for Infrastructure and Transport (right), gave a speech to the National Press Club of Australia. During the course of that speech he stated:
'In Australia we have serious challenges to solve and we need serious people to solve them. Unfortunately, Tony Abbott [leader of the Opposition] is not the least bit interested in fixing anything. He is only interested in two things: making Australians afraid of it and telling them who’s to blame for it'.
It has since been revealed that Mr Albanese misappropriated lines from the 1995 Hollywood film The American President, the screenplay for which was written by the critically acclaimed writer Aaron Sorkin. There, Michael Douglas, in the role of the President, criticised his political opponent by stating:
'We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it'.
As any sentient reader can see, Mr Albanese's words are very similar to those written by Mr Sorkin. After hours of silence from his office after the speech, Mr Albanese seemed to try to make light of the matter on Twitter by tweeting 'D'oh! Stuff up' (for the record, that comes from another great American, Homer Simpson). An embarrassed Mr Albanese later took responsibility for the gaffe, but is reported in The Australian newspaper to have said that the lines were a just small part of a 13-page speech: 'It was unfortunate --  but is it a big deal?'.

Um, well .. yes?

The script for The American President would be protected as a dramatic work under section 10 of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Under sections 31 and 36, copyright is infringed by reproducing the whole or a substantial part of a copyright work in a material form. 'Substantial part' in this instance is a matter of quality not quantity. As English readers will be aware, this is the same as the position under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

When this Kat viewed the script for The American President online, it ran to approximately 130 pages. Accordingly, the use of a few lines (as memorable as they are performed by Mr Douglas) might be considered by some to be unlikely to constitute a substantial part of Mr Sorkin's script for the purposes of copyright infringement. However, that does not mean that Mr Albanese is off the hook.

Plagiarism is one of those concepts which is difficult to define, but people claim to know it when they see it. As a useful starting point, the Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as 'the wrongful appropriation or purloining and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas … of another'. Plagiarism is broader than the test for copyright infringement and arguably covers Mr Albanese's actions in this instance. That he realised that he should have acknowledged the origin of The American President quote is evident in his later acknowledgement of 'd'oh!' from Homer Simpson.

The IPKat observes that Mr Albanese is approaching the issue of copyright/plagiarism from the wrong perspective. Mr Albanese stated words to the effect that a few problematic lines in a 13 page speech was not a big deal. First, as readers will know, the correct question to ask in respect of copyright was whether the problematic lines were a substantial part of the original work of Mr Sorkin, not whether they formed a substantial part of Mr Albanese's subsequent speech. Secondly, in respect of plagiarism, what mattered was the misappropriation of the ideas or expression of another etc in the first place, irrespective of the role those ideas or expression etc played in the subsquent text.

Merpel, in the words from another great play by Mr Sorkin (A Few Good Men), cheekily wonders if Mr Albanese 'can't handle the truth' ...

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