21 February 2011

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany's Popular Minister of Defence, Accused For Copyright Infringement and Science Plagiatism

Mission accomplished? (photo via Wikimedia under a CC license)

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is an exceptionally popular centre-right politician of Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) who - up to now - made an impressive political career and became a Federal Minister already at the age of 37. He now serves as Minister of Defence in the second Merkel cabinet (see biography of the defence ministry).

Mr Guttenberg, a member of the Franconian noble House of Guttenberg, is a political pop star ("the cool baron") who has been proclaimed as future Federal Chancellor by parts of Germany's conservative media. He studied political science and law at the University of Bayreuth and was awarded a summa cum laude doctorate in law in 2007 with a dissertation on the development of constitutional law in the US and the EU.

Only recently, allegations became public that Guttenberg systematically copied numerous unattributed passages from twenty or more different sources such as newspaper articles, speeches, scientific papers, and even the Federal Parliament's research department. The spontaneously initiated GuttenPlag wiki, searching for and documenting plagiates in Guttenberg's thesis, already found that - allegedly - 68% of the pages contain copied passages. Meanwhile, two complaints on grounds of copyright infringement have been submitted and Guttenberg's university took the accusations of science plagiatism serious enough to ask him for written clarification within 14 days (see also coverage in the Spiegel magazine, here, here, or here).

The case is somewhat "juicy" for the Federal Government under Chancellor Angela Merkel, since  the conservatives (and liberals) traditionally follow a rather strict property-oriented copyright approach, including e.g. ancillary copyright for newspaper publishers, provider liability, and intensified copyright enforcement in the internet (see e.g. Federal Minister of Justice Sabine Leutheuser-Schnarrenberger's June 2010 Berlin Address on Copyright Law).

Myself, I have to agree with the below-sketched observations on science plagiatism and copyright of IT/IP lawyer and blogger Thomas Stadler, who is asking "What does the Guttenberg case mean for studies and research at the universities and the attitude of the federal government towards copyright issues?":
According to § 8 no 6 of the dotoral regulations of the University of Bayreuth Guttenberg had to make a sworn statement that he prepared his dissertation individually and independently and that no other materials were used than those indicated in the thesis.

The fact that the minister's apparent lie is accompanied by a severe case of copyright infringement is quite spicy for the Federal Government, which does not get tired to emphasise that intellectual property enforcement, especially in the internet, has to be intensified and the position of authors and [copy]right holders needs to be strengthened. The Government will now have to face the fact that such attitudes become questionable when a member of the Federal Cabinet intentionally violates copyrights of others. Guttenberg increases the crisis of legitimacy of copyright, since he, in fact, is a copy pirate.

But that's not all, though. His pirate copying took place in an academic study, thus also violating fundamental principles of scientific working - literally copied text passages must be labeled as quotes and trains of thought utilised from others must be disclosed as such.

Leaving this violation of scientific principles unpunished would throw examination pracitce of German universities in a crisis of legitimacy. How to explain students and doctoral candidates that they cannot piece together their thesis in a copy/paste fashion from the texts of others, if a minister is well rewarded with [nothing less than] summa cum laude? [Such cheating] has to be outlawed especially on a scientific level, which in the present case should be done by depriving the [apparently undeserved] doctorate.

Should the University of Bayreuth not be prepared to draw this conclusion, they would only confirme the already-standing suspicion that dissertations are also evaluated according to political criteria. [By the way,] the fact that two renowned professors rewarded a work composed in significant parts from third party texts with the top mark is more than amazing. [...]