4 Famous Cases of Plagiarism

Some of history’s most vaunted writers have been caught stealing material without attribution.

Gandee Vasan/Stone/Getty Images

Norway’s minister for research and higher education resigned in January 2024 after a student discovered that parts of her master’s thesis had been taken from another author’s work without attribution—and she’s far from the only public figure who has faced accusations of plagiarism. Let’s revisit a few famous cases of word borrowing.

1. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech

Martin Luther King Jr.
MLK at the March on Washington—where parts of his speech were inspired by another. / CNP/GettyImages

In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. received a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University on the strength of his dissertation comparing the theologians Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Weiman. In a review long after King’s assassination, though, the university discovered that King had plagiarized about a third of his thesis from another student’s dissertation.

King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, also echoed the work of a colleague. A leading Chicago minister and lawmaker named Archibald Carey, Jr. had given a speech at the 1952 Republican National Convention that ended on an inspiring note:

“From every mountain side, let freedom ring. Not only from the Green Mountains and the White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire; not only from the Catskills of New York; but from the Ozarks in Arkansas, from the Stone Mountain in Georgia, from the Great Smokies of Tennessee and from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.”

King’s rousing finale in Washington—which was partly improvised on the spot—was noticeably similar, leading some to believe that he was inspired by Carey’s speech:

“And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

“And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.”

2. John Milton’s Paradise Lost (by way of William Lauder)

John Milton
John Milton: Not a plagiarist (despite William Lauder’s efforts) / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Was the poet behind Paradise Lost a plagiarist? Well, no, but William Lauder, a Scottish scholar and noted forger, sure wanted you to think so. In 1747, embittered by his professional failures, Lauder published several essays in the Gentlemen’s Magazine claiming to prove that Milton had stolen almost all of his 1667 epic poem from other authors. Lauder accused Milton—who was by then deceased—of lifting text from now-obscure works like Hugo Grotius’s Adamus Exul (1601) and Andrew Ramsay’s Poemata Sacra (1633).

There was just one problem: Lauder had forged the “evidence” by inserting lines from Paradise Lost into the other authors’ works. For a while, many scholars (including the great Samuel Johnson) supported Lauder. But skeptics studied extant copies of the older poems and it soon became obvious that Lauder, not Milton, was the cheat. And cheating, at least in this case, didn’t pay. Lauder fled to Barbados and died in obscurity.

3. Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family

Alex Haley
Alex Haley admitted inadvertently lifting material from another writer. / Mickey Adair/GettyImages

Journalist Alex Haley initially gained prominence for being the “as told to” co-author behind The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published less than a year after the civil rights leader’s assassination in 1965. Haley then went on to publish the epic Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976, supposedly a true story in which he traced his own ancestry back to an African man, Kunta Kinte, who was enslaved and forcibly bought to the U.S. in the 18th century. Haley won a Pulitzer Prize the next year, and the book was made into a wildly popular miniseries.

After the book’s publication, however, several historians and authors challenged the truthfulness of the story. In one case, an author named Harold Courlander sued Haley for plagiarizing his 1967 novel, The African. Haley eventually admitted that three paragraphs in the earlier novel had found their way into Roots.

Courlander’s lawyer mentioned an example in court. In The African, enslaved people called to each other in the fields by saying: “well, yooo‐hooo‐ahhooo, don’t you hear me calling you?”

In Roots, the lawyer alleged, the phrase appears almost exactly: “the field hands heard a rising, lingering singsong. Yooo‐hooo‐ah‐hooo, don’t you hear me calling you?”

Haley and Courlander settled the dispute out of court.

4. Stendhal’s The Lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Metastasio

Portrait Of Marie-Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal
Stendhal: Guilty as charged. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

During his life, French writer Stendhal (whose real name was Marie-Henri Beyle) was most famous not for his novels, but for his books about art and travel. Yet, in his published debut, The Lives of Haydn, Mozart, and Metastasio (1814), he plagiarized extensively from at least one previous biography. In a review of a reissued edition in the journal Modern Language Review, a critic described Stendhal’s literary lift:

“[Stendhal] made up his mind to write ... a life of Haydn, about whose music and life he himself knew virtually nothing. This perilous, even ludicrous problem he solved by downright plagiarism ... in a tearing hurry he concocted (or rather brazenly translated) his amazing work, borrowing practically all of it (without a single word of acknowledgment) from a well-known if not remarkably discerning Italian biography of Haydn by Giuseppe Carpani, then a relatively prominent musicologist.”

When Stendhal was confronted with overwhelming evidence of the theft, he took it even further by manufacturing evidence to exonerate himself, the critic continued:

“The author had no qualms at all; he proceeded to invent a facetious brother with a similarly provocative pseudonym, merely to cock snooks at poor old Carpani, beside himself with righteous anger ... [Stendhal] was uncommonly lucky to live in a very easy-going century; otherwise; he might speedily have found himself in some court of bankruptcy.”

At the very least, he could have added forgery to his list of literary crimes.

This article was excerpted from the Mental Floss book Forbidden Knowledge. A version of this story was published in 2012; it has been updated for 2024.