A Sticky Situation

—Rita Emmett

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Here is a Sticky Situation from Rita Emmett:

During a fellow speaker’s talk, she gave a hilarious 5-minute segment about the difference between men’s and women’s brains. Afterwards I complimented her and she thanked me.

Last week, I watched a video of Pastor Mark Gungor’s talk, “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage.” Among his many hilarious observations was the same word-for-word bit about men’s and women’s brains. This video has over one million hits on YouTube.

I was stunned. I believe that his material should be treated the same as if he were a fellow professional speaker—it’s his, not yours—even if he’s not a full-time professional speaker.

Several speaker friends disagreed and said that after a million people have viewed it, do you really think that there’s only one speaker using this man’s material? They believed that since the pastor is not a professional speaker and won’t be addressing the same audiences that we do, lifting material from him (or from a popular comedian) is OK.

Is it possible that when someone’s observations become extremely popular, that they sort of become “public domain”?

— Leah Carey

I’ve heard that in publishing cookbooks, a recipe has to be changed by at least three ingredients in order to be considered a “new” recipe. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but it provides a good metaphor.

There are some stories that are very powerful and will be used by many people. The question is whether we’re making them our own in our presentations. In my opinion, using a good story in our own words is okay, but using someone else’s exact words crosses the line into plagiarism.

— Patty Newbold

Not that I think it has anything to do with giving credit where it’s due, but Mark Gungor IS very much a professional speaker.

  • He has a daily radio show with two co-hosts.
  • He does marriage workshops all over the country, on the road several times a month.
  • He sells DVDs of his talks.
  • He has a great marriage-improvement web app for making your own Flag Page.
  • He is the senior pastor for a five-campus church with its own online TV channel.
  • He is marvelous to listen to in person and will make you laugh.

Legally, he can copyright only his writing and his performances. We are free to use and add to his ideas. Ethically, I think we owe him and all whose ideas we use acknowledgement for what we borrow.

— Alan

Over the 23 years I have been a member of NSA and the 30+ years I have been speaking and all the years I have been writing and researching I have found examples of what Rita is talking about: people using other people’s work without giving credit.

Merrill Douglass, long time NSAer shared it this way:

  • 1st stage people quote and give credit
  • 2nd stage people quote and use the line “as I have heard it said” not credit given
  • 3rd stage people just say things and use the line “as I have always said”

In other words, if you don’t give credit or ask permission, you show your

  • lack of ethics
  • lack of professionalism
  • lack of maturity
  • lack of respect

— Liz Weber

Stealing is stealing, folks. The excuse that he’s not a professional speaker (and that his video has had over 1 million hits) and therefore it doesn’t matter is laughable. At least credit the man for being the originator. This is basic professional speaker ethics 101.

— Pegine Echevarria

If a person (paid or not) has created material it is his or her material. If you use it and you didn’t create it, pay for it, attribute it AND are clear that this is not yours...you are STEALING.

There is no sugar coating. If people use excuses to validate their behavior they are conning themselves.

If I get this straight the thought behind this is. He or she spent years studying, investing on their craft and finally after years of hard work earned the privilege of a million hits you can steal it. That Just means your too lazy or don’t trust yourself to be innovative to create your own material.

I expect that if any of my fellow speakers hear someone lift my materials or content they will call me. I’ve invested blood sweat and money to be of value to my clients. Stealing songs is wrong (downloading pirated songs) STEALING material is wrong.

— Kelly Swanson

Using someone else’s material is wrong. It is not ethical. And probably not legal. And it hurts the profession if we are all out there giving the same speeches. You aren’t allowed to use music just because it has a million hits on YouTube. You shouldn’t be allowed to use the story I WROTE, I PUBLISHED, I CREATED, and I USE as part of MY BRANDING. That includes comedy—it includes my silly songs that I write—it includes the tributes I write for my audiences—it includes anything I create. It also includes my logo and my pictures.

If we start copying each other, we become a commodity and no speaker is different than another. It’s already happened—and that’s why you have so few at the top and so many at the bottom. The “bottom” is filled with speakers and trainers who can be swapped out at a moment’s notice, and nobody would know the difference. They deliver their message, quote every speaker they’ve ever heard, and are forgotten by lunch. The speakers who rise above have created something that makes them unique.

All of that being said—there are some things that we can’t stake claim to—like truths and points and educational material, unless we are the authors of it. Very few speakers are teaching something new. Good grief—my points as a motivational speaker have been delivered in one way or another for years. I don’t expect that I will be the only one to say “Believe in yourself.” The INFORMATION (again, unless you are the one who did the studies and wrote the book on it) is open to everyone to share. The way it is wrapped, is not.

We shouldn’t copy personalities or brands or tag lines either. Not sure if it’s legal, but it’s definitely stupid. If somebody’s already doing it, you are better suited to find something else. Or you will be seen as a hack—an impersonator. And I don’t want to be an Elvis impersonator or a cover band. I want to be a one-of-a-kind.

At the very least, if you are going to use the pastor’s material, you should ask his permission. I don’t care if he is a professional speaker or not. That’s like saying you can play Justin Bieber’s music without permission or paying, just because he’s not a professional speaker.

— Ken Braly

How is this even a question? Millions of people have read Harry Potter books, but they’re not going to be in the public domain anytime soon. Copyright is copyright, whether the source is a professional speaker or not.

— Cher Holton

The “spirit of the law” is more important than the “letter of the law”! I prefer to cite where I find my material and whenever possible, give the originating person the kudos they deserve. It does not diminish me in the eyes of my audience—in fact, I believe it enhances the reality of my integrity.

— Larry Mersereau

If a million people have seen it on YouTube, odds are you’ll have one or more of them in your audience some day. How embarrassed will you be when they spread the word (or call you out on the spot!) that you stole that bit?

— Stephanie Angelo

It doesn’t matter if the person whose material you’re using, is a professional speaker or not; you should never, ever use their material without proper attribution, and better yet—permission! There’s a professional speaker who not only tells a story nearly identical to a personal story of mine I’ve been telling for years, but she was even written up in Speaker Magazine using it. Now if I do my own story it will look as if I’m copying her.

In addition, how does one even call themselves a “professional” if they so blatantly disregard the courtesy of asking permission or giving attribution to another persona’s material? It’s not a compliment, or flattery, it’s inappropriate.

— David Glickman

There is absolutely no justification for using someone else’s material. It doesn’t matter where the material came from, or if millions of other people have heard it—if it’s not yours, it’s not yours. (Not to mention that fact that it’s going to hurt your credibility with audience members who have seen the original piece.) Certainly there are old stock lines, genesis unknown, that have been floating around comedy clubs for decades, that might get used in an ad-lib situation. But to do actual pieces of material, stories, observations, and lines that were crafted by someone else is wrong. A possible compromise might be to say, “Some of you may have seen Mark Gungor’s hilarious piece on men’s and women’s brains. What Mark says is...” and then go on to give attribution to Mark (several times) throughout the entire piece. But if you’re going to go that route, you’re better off just quoting (with attribution) one or two lines, at most, and then sticking to your own material!

— Rebecca Staton-Reinstein

Are you kiddin’ me? Copyright and attribution go out the window because of YouTube hits? Come on...this is the starfish story on steroids and if 1,000,000 people have seen it and one of them is in your audience, do you look like a dodo or what? Stealing other people’s stuff and using it as your own is a huge No No for PROFESSIONAL speakers. I’m sure commenters will tell their own horror stories—we all have them. There is NO JUSTIFICATION for using anyone else’s material (whether they are professional speakers or not) without attribution. Don’t professional speakers subscribe to an ethical code? Or did I miss the memo that it’s been suspended?

— Jeff Deutsch

Not just no, but HECK NO! Something privately produced (not by the government, in other words) goes into the public domain, AFAIK, in exactly two ways: The creator/rights holder’s explicit decision or the passage of time—a very long time under U.S. law.

It’s an “urban legend” that something posted on the Internet—whether on a web page, a blog post, YouTube or somewhere else—is public domain. And just how someone should be rewarded for creating material that lots of people love by losing all one’s rights to it is beyond me. It kind of defeats the purpose of any kind of copyright law. It seems to me just a rationalization for stealing, no different from "But when I pirate music and share it with my friends I’m helping the band by giving their work more exposure."

*Always* give credit to other people’s material you’re using. That’s my policy, and I expect that to be the policy of anyone who uses anything of mine.

For that matter, when posting things it’s only courteous to give “hat tips”—honoring “curators” who bring items to your attention even if they themselves didn’t create them. That’s a long-standing norm on blogs, and people have even had their Twitter accounts suspended for not giving credit to curators when retweeting. I give hat tips everywhere on blogs and social media, and ask that others do the same for me when they see a link or a resource that I publicize—even if I didn’t create it.

Giving credit like this is just like giving credit to your co-workers. It makes you look *better*—and in this context, smarter too because you have access to so many information sources.

Oh, and by the way, even this is restricted by the U.S. copyright doctrine of “fair use.” Go beyond fair use—whatever it might mean* in a given situation, for a given work—and you better have the creator/rights holder’s *prior* permission. Otherwise, you are screwed, blued and tattooed—copyright law in America is draconian. (Whether or not it needs to be is a whole ’nuther conversation!)

[*] As determined after the fact in a court of law, after years of expensive and stressful litigation.

PS: Before judging such a situation, just make sure you *know* just whose material came first.

— Jim Bouchard

Why do we continue to debate this issue? DON’T BE A THIEF! If you’re doing someone else’s bit; give them credit! All this person had to do was intro the story with, “Have you seen this video on YouTube?” I still credit a 7-year-old kid I don’t even know for teaching me the meaning of respect that I use in every presentation. Maybe someday he’ll be in the audience and I can thank him.

— Joe Liss

Is this even debatable? It is never, never, ever, ever, appropriate or acceptable to “lift” other people’s material. Did I sugarcoat that too much?

— Mark Black

Not a chance. Let’s forget the morality of stealing someone else, ANYONE else’s material for a second and just look at it selfishly from the point of view of your career. While the pastor may not be a speaker, if a million plus have seen his video, then the odds of someone in your audience having seen it, are not that remote. That means you are chancing that someone in your audience will realize that you are recycling someone else’s words which makes you look like a hack, or worse. Quoting someone (and giving proper attribution) is one thing, but telling a story or a joke as if it is your creation when it isn’t, is bad news no matter how you look at it.

— John Fuhrman

Whether a million people have seen the material or not, it was material that didn’t belong to that speaker. I personally believe it should not have been used, even if it was acknowledged. Stories are a personal thing. Imagine if this applied to all material. I have over a million and a half readers of my books. Does this mean anyone can just change my name on the cover to theirs?

— George Torok

Consider this perspective: What if the pastor, comedian or company CEO steals your material without accreditation? How would you feel?

After a speech, a woman walked up to me and said, “You were very funny, I wrote down your stories for my husband to use because he does some speaking.” Shocked, I responded, “Those are my stories and not for you to steal. ” She rolled her eyeballs and dismissed my comment with, “Oh, you don’t need to worry. The two of you will never be speaking at the same event.”

— Richard Caldwell

Some years ago, at a NSA convention, someone one said that if you want to present something that is not original you could always say, “as Earl Nightingale once said....” The theory was that at one time he probably did say that so by crediting him you were covering your bases. However, I don’t think an audience would think less of the speaker if she had mentioned she heard, or read, this great story by Rev. so and so. No matter how many people might have seen, and used, it, he still should get credit.

— Brenda Avadian

Respecting copyright is paramount. Whether a speaker is popular or not does not determine rights to steal material. It’s this kind of behavior that affects the reputation of speakers in the industry and hurts us all. Sadly, there are too many who think nothing of inserting a cartoon into their PPT presentations—some world-renown speakers, no less! It is important that credit is given when using others’ material and getting permission. You’ll be surprised how many will say, “Yes.” Also, imagine the gift of a lift you give to a less-known speaker’s career or the credibility you retain by quoting a well-known speaker, when you give credit where due.

— Dan O’Day

  1. Any original creative work automatically is copyrighted at the moment it’s created.
  2. Becoming popular doesn’t transform a copyrighted work into public domain.
  3. If you have several speaker friends who justified the illegal theft of intellectual property by saying, “Do you really think that there’s only one speaker using this man’s material?” and “since the pastor is not a professional speaker...lifting material from him...is OK,” then you need to get yourself a better class of friends.

— Lorri Allen

I would argue that Mark Gungor IS a professional speaker. Pastors and preachers get paid to speak and, depending on the number of services at their churches, and the number of funerals and classes they teach, may quite likely, speak more often than many of us do. In addition, if you were fortunate enough to hear Mark when he spoke at a recent NSA convention, you know how good he is. That makes him a professional to me.

Second, no matter whether someone is a professional speaker—by any definition—stealing is stealing, even if many have seen it on YouTube.

— Lois de Vries

This kind of behavior is indefensible. I’ve seen the YouTube video and would have recognized it (and been annoyed) immediately. This is the same as memorizing an excerpt from a book or stealing photos from someone’s website and presenting it as your own work.

It only takes a moment to acknowledge the source. I use the expression, “Things that make you go hmmmm,” in most of my talks and I preface it with the question, “How many people remember the Arsenio Hall Show?” Even though it was a long time ago, many people do. It would be both stupid and unprofessional of me to present this as my own idea. Someone in the audience will know better.

By handling it this way, I get everyone’s attention, some raised hands, and a few chuckles. The audience immediately relaxes.

— Gary Rifkin

Quoting someone (with attribution) is a perfectly powerful way to share your message. Delivering someone’s actual content as if it is your own is not only dishonest and inauthentic, it’s unethical. Period.

— Kyle Eastham

It’s not OK to steal the material from the video. It shows a lack of class and ethics. At least give Mark credit. If a million people have already seen it on YouTube, some in your audience will be turned off when they realize it’s not your original material.

— Beth Terry

Stunning ethics question, and wrong assumption on many counts.

  • How do you determine if a person is a “professional speaker”? NSA says you are if you have given 20 paid speeches in the last 12 months. I assure you that Pastor Gungor is paid well for his speeches. Thus, the argument that he is not a professional speaker is wrong—not to mention a moot point.
  • If your yardstick is that “millions have seen it on YouTube so it’s public domain” then you are essentially telling all of us in this industry we had better not be successful in marketing our brand and our material on the internet. If you use that yardstick, then all of Seth Godin’s work, all of Steve Jobs’ speeches, the entire body of work on TED, (I could go on listing our own speakers) is considered “public domain.” Is this the mindset you want to create? Isn’t this what we are fighting with all our conversations about tracking people who have stolen our blog posts and printed them as their own?
  • If you are brazen enough to steal something that has been seen by millions of people on YouTube, you will be busted. People sit in our presentations and research our statistics on their smartphones. Do you think they won’t research our stories as well? If an audience member catches a speaker using stolen material, credibility hits zero. That person could/would tweet to all the other audience members that you are a fraud before you get down to your final point. Is it worth it? You will see your bookings, back of room sales, and reputation hit the dumpster before you pack up your laptop and leave.
  • Just because Mark Gungor is a pastor doesn’t mean he doesn’t have attorneys. A lawsuit for plagiarism doesn’t look good on your “resume.”

Create your OWN material. Live your OWN life. Tell your OWN stories. People crave authenticity right now. You can’t be real giving someone else’s material. If you do want to quote a snippet, give credit where it’s due.

SpeakerNet News is produced by Rebecca Morgan and Ken Braly. It is not affiliated with the National Speakers Association. Send comments or suggestions