Philippines Senator Accused of Plagiarism… Twice

The issue of intellectual property has been a topic of much debate thanks to one Filipino Senator’s choice of words.

When Philippine Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III delivered a speech last month about the dangers of artificial contraceptives, he did not expect he would become embroiled in a heated and acrimonious debate about the sins of plagiarism, and not about his opposition to the Reproductive Health bill.   

Sotto prepared a three-part speech aimed at convincing his colleagues and the public at large about the allegedly immoral and unconstitutional provisions of the controversial measure. But to Sotto’s dismay, no sooner had he finished his first presentation than he was accused of plagiarizing an American blogger. Sotto’s first reaction was to deny the charge, but his staff later admitted that some parts of the speech were indeed copied from a blog, but supposedly only for reference.

Sotto dismissed the plagiarism issue as something concocted by critics who couldn’t refute his arguments against the use of artificial contraceptives. He even complained of being the first senator to be cyber-bullied because of his commitment to block the passage of the Reproductive Health legislation. 

But if the plagiarism issue elicited intense response from both old and new media, Sotto can only blame himself, his chief-of-staff, and even the Senate President, the latter of whom made ludicrous statements about the meaning of plagiarism.

According to news reports, Sotto said he can’t be held liable for plagiarism because it only applies “if you contend that the contents are yours… whether you give attribution or not.” Citing the opinion of Atty. Louie Andrew C. Calvario of the country’s Intellectual Property Office, Sotto even reminded his accusers that plagiarism is not a crime in the Philippines: "The crime of plagiarism is not defined in our laws, particularly the Intellectual Property Code and the Revised Penal Code. Neither can it be characterized as copyright infringement since it did not economically injure the author."

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, a legal luminary in his own right, defended Sotto from the plagiarism charge. “He did not deny that the speech was a product of research. Meaning, there was attribution,” Enrile said in an interview. “Is there an idea in this world that was not copied from others? Once you release an idea to the public, unless you copyright it, it can be used,” he added in the same news report.

Meanwhile, Sotto’s chief-of-staff referred to the dissemination of the bible to justify the legislator’s actions, when he reportedly stated, “the Bible reached us today because the monks copied from the Greeks. Everything really started from a little copying. Even our image was copied from God. We are all plagiarists.”

He also said that the Philippines copied the United States Constitution. “We plagiarized the U.S. Constitution… but do they call us a plagiaristic country? No, because the law is based on precedent,” the chief-of-staff said in an interview. He added that “a blog is meant to be shared and we shared it.” 

Sotto’s misfortune of being called a plagiarist continued this week when he was accused of plagiarizing Senator Robert F. Kennedy after it was exposed that the concluding part of one of Sotto’s speech was a direct Filipino translation of a speech made by Kennedy in 1966. Sotto has denied the accusation again. 

This is not the first time that a high ranking Philippines official was involved in a plagiarism scandal. A member of the Supreme Court is facing impeachment after being accused of plagiarism.  

The tragedy in Sotto’s case is that the issue could have quickly died down if he only apologized immediately to the offended blogger. But the senator could not be persuaded to admit his lapses, which is why everybody is talking and laughing about his plagiarism woes instead of his pro-life advocacy.