Melania Trump’s Speech Raises Copyright Concerns

Are public speeches copyrighted?

Melania Trump, wife of Presidential Candidate Donald Trump, spoke at the Republican National Convention to a massive crowd of enthusiastic voters.  Just moments after the speech ended, however, controversy erupted.  News outlets started reporting that a portion of her speech was strikingly similar to a speech delivered by Michelle Obama, wife of then Presidential Candidate Senator Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. While the Trump campaign has denied that Melania Trump plagiarized any part of the speech, the hullabaloo does raise some important copyright issues concerning public speeches.

Copyright Protection for a Public Speech

Copyright law is designed to protect original works of authorship, including literary, artistic, dramatic, and musical works.  Copyright law will only apply, however, when the protected works are fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  Accordingly, a public speech will only be protected if it is notated or recorded.  For Michelle Obama, copyright law applies to her 2008 speech because it was fixed in several tangible mediums, including sound recordings, video recordings, and written form. 

Federal Works are Exempt From Copyright

One additional question to examine is whether Mrs. Obama’s speech was a federal work.  Works prepared by officers or employees of the federal government as part of the employee’s official duties are not generally entitled to copyright protection and are therefore in the public domain.  Accordingly, some major presidential public speeches are not in fact copyrighted.  In the case of Mrs. Obama’s speech, she was not a federal government employee at the time the speech was created or delivered, so it does not fall into the public domain. 

Copyright Infringement

With Mrs. Obama’s speech protected under copyright law, the question then becomes whether Mrs. Trump used enough of the speech to constitute infringement.  This is a question yet to be officially answered.  A federal judge would look to the factual and legal similarities existing between the two speeches to determine whether infringement occurred.   

If you need assistance with a copyright or other intellectual property matter, New York City intellectual property attorney Thomas M. Lancia can help.  For over twenty years, Thomas M. Lancia PLLC has assisted clients facing infringement of their protected works.  Contact our office today at (212) 964-3157 to schedule a consultation.