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Unintentional Plagiarism?

I had something else lined up for today, but man, the news has been buzzing nonstop since the other week, and I just can’t help it. For those of you with short patience: this is a long read, so pop some popcorn in the microwave, we’re going to be in for a long ride.

Senator Vicente Sotto’s legal team has a big problem. During the morning of August 23, 2012, Hector Villacorta said, during a breakfast meeting with the press, the following:

“Copying is a common practice. Why do you need to think of a brand-new measure when a good one that was not enacted already exists?”

as evidenced in this article on the Philippine Daily Inquirer. To his defense, Miriam Defensor-Santiago states that plagiarism really isn’t that big of a deal in the Senate, which can be read on this ABS-CBN news article.

But that’s where it gets tricky. And this is the root of all of Villacorta’s problems.

Not the real Tito Sotto

Not the real Tito Sotto

 

First of all, let’s gloss over all of the things Villacorta said that is outrightly stupid. Okay, not all of it: Sotto needs to apologize for the work of his researchers, since he’s their boss. And if we were made in the image and likeness of God by God, then we’re not plagiarized, since we’re the works of the creator. A creator cannot plagiarize his own work.

Okay, now that that’s over with, let’s go deep into the discussion of plagiarism in the world of government.

The Curious Case of Associate Justice del Castillo

You knew this was coming. Back in 2010, a case of plagiarism was brought against the above named associate justice for “…plagiarism, twisting of cited materials, and gross neglect…” in the Vinuya v. Romulo G.R. No. 162230. That’s all too technical for me to get into right here, so go visit the supreme court en banc decision in 2011 and read throughout the whole thing. Never mind that it was written during the time that Renato Corona was chief justice of the supreme court. It’s still pretty interesting, for those of you with the patience.

The only two things that you need to note there are the following:

  1. The supreme court does not approve of plagiarism, and goes as far as to call the claim that they do as “absurd”, a word that you rarely see in legal documents, which gives me the idea that this really is an idea so stupid that to even entertain it is unthinkable.
  2. However, the judicial system – and I’m guessing therefore, the entire government – follows the doctrine of the stare decis precedent, which states that all prior cases, laws, bills, decisions, and any settled matters (I’m a bit unclear on that last bit), are to be abided by, and properly cited, in any future written and spoken works by judicial – and again, I am reaching by saying that all congressional – officials.

So that’s that, yes? So there was due cause for Sotto’s act of plagiarism. It makes sense that rather than reinventing the wheel when writing laws, to use old, unpassed laws in parts or in full, so long as it fits what you’re trying to create. In that sense, then yes. The government, sadly, does not mind plagiarism since it expedites the creation and amendment of important bills and resolutions.

So What’s Villacorta’s Problem?

Does the stare decis precedent mean that Sotto’s out of the woods? Not by a mile, in my opinion. And this is where Hector Villacorta, as a lawyer, really dumbfounds me.

First of all, head on over to the Wikipedia entry on the Copyright Law of the Philippines. Pay close attention to the section where the author outlines the classes of work that are considered by the Copyright Law as intellectual property, and therefore protected by mandate of law from plagiarism, and violations can be punished by law.

To take a page from Duy’s regular dialogue: but Martin, didn’t you just say that the government can copy with impunity since it serves the purpose of expedience?

From what I’ve gathered, that’s about right, but not quite. This BAR exam review note gives a pretty lengthy discussion, note by note, of the Copyright Law of the Philippines. It states pretty much the same thing that the 2011 Supreme Court stated, but it goes in depth on what is and isn’t covered by the Copyright Law.

Of note is the section that outlines the items that aren’t covered by the law, namely:

  • Mere data or facts
  • Ideas and concepts (textbook knowledge is not subject to copyright; but the manner of presenting textbook knowledge is copyrightable)
  • Work of government
  • Works read or rendered in courts, and before deliberative assemblies and in meetings of public character
  • Works already in the public domain (either by nature, such as works of government; or because copyright protection has lapsed)

Interesting. So from the looks of it, the Copyright Law does exempt the government from plagiarizing oh, wait: works that the government has made. So in that sense, plagiarism in the creation of laws is legal and sensible since the usage of old, unpassed laws is a loophole.

In the case of Sarah Pope’s blog, the points of contention would be that 1. the contents copied were mere data or facts; 2. ideas and concepts; 3. works already in public domain. If only that were so, Atty. Villacorta, your life would make a lot more sense, and so would you.

Is Sarah Pope’s Blog Covered by the Copyright Law?

It is this humble writer’s opinion that Sarah Pope’s blog is indeed covered by the Copyright Law, and for three reasons.

Firstly, the passages Sotto lifted from Pope’s blog were, save for several small sections, written completely on her own. This alienates it from being mere data or facts, or even just a textbook idea and concept, since there was some artistic endeavor in the act of writing the selected passages. Unless the sections were quoted as lifted word for word from Natasha McBride’s book, those words are 100% Pope’s.

Secondly, is the fact that the works were already in the public domain. Blogs, unless owned by news groups or a collected entity publishing work with the express purpose of sharing news and information, are not public domain and are protected by no less than five international copyright laws. Please check this blog post for more copyright information on protecting your work, as well as the works of others. What makes it worse is that even though Pope’s blog is hosted in another country, and owned by a foreigner, the Philippines is party to all five of those international copyright laws. Go on, check the Wikipedia page. As a matter of fact, we’ve been a member of the Berne Convention since 1955.

Thirdly – and this really is the easiest to explain, for me – is that Sarah Pope has her blog protected by the Chetangole.com plug-in. What this nifty little plug-in does is that it keeps the reader from selecting text or right-clicking anywhere on the blog page. This basically means that Sarah doesn’t want you lifting her words from her blog, you moron.

***

I can’t help but say that I pity Tito Sotto for having such a boneheaded chief-of-staff on his team. But this is, in no way, unintentional plagiarism at all, and the fact that Villacorta holds such a difficult, yet important, position in a high-ranking government official’s team makes it his responsibility to ensure that the good senator gets his work done right. And so far, I have yet to see evidence that he really has a full knowledge of what his statements have been doing for his boss.

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