The Difference Between Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Paper with Infringement on it and a gavel

Photo Credit:  iStock/Olivier Le Moal

There are many differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement, yet it can be easy to confuse these concepts. While both plagiarism and copyright infringement can be characterized as the improper use of someone else’s work, they are distinctly different improper uses of someone else’s work. The biggest difference is that copyright infringement is illegal, while plagiarism is not. This blog post discusses additional differences between the two and provides examples of each type of improper use.

What is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism occurs when a party attempts to pass someone else’s work or ideas off as their own, without properly giving credit to the original source. Plagiarism, while not against the law, is an ethical construct most commonly enforced by academic intuitions. Consequences of academic plagiarism may range from receiving a failing grade all the way to the revocation of a degree.

Plagiarism is not just limited to the academic setting. In the professional world, plagiarism has its own set of consequences, which may include sullying the plagiarizer’s reputation and in some instances termination and difficulty finding new employment. For example, in 2014 CNN fired a London-based news editor for repeated plagiarism offenses over a six month period, involving a total of 128 separate instances of plagiarism, mostly taken from Reuters.

Copyright, at its core, is the set of rights belonging to the creator or owner of a work of authorship that is original and fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This set of rights automatically vests to someone who creates an original work of authorship like a song, literary work, movie, or photograph. These rights allow a copyright owner to control who, when, where, and how their work is used, such as through the right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies, and to perform and display the work publicly.

Copyright infringement occurs when a party takes an action that implicates one or more of the rights listed above without authorization from the copyright owner or an applicable exception or limitation in the copyright law, such as fair use. There can be significant legal consequences for copyright infringement, including injunctions, monetary damages, and in extreme instances criminal penalties.

The examples below illustrate some of the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement.

Plagiarism But Not Copyright Infringement: A student copies a few sentences of a 20-page book illustrating and describing species of birds to use in article on evolution submitted for her high school newspaper but fails to provide a citation or footnote explaining that the information came from the book. This student may have committed plagiarism by not properly attributing the information and making it seem like the information originated from the student. However, the student will most likely not be found to have committed copyright infringement because such an inconsequential amount was used in an educational setting in a manner that is unlikely to harm the authors market for the work that the use is likely a fair use.

Copyright Infringement but Not Plagiarism: This time, the high school student copies the entire bird species book that she includes in several article published in the paper, but she puts a citation at the bottom of each article that includes the author’s name, the title of the book, and how the entire article is taken directly from the book. While the student properly attributed the author and did not try to pass the article off as her own work, she copied the entire work without permission, which likely infringes the author’s rights under copyright law.

Both Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement: A young writer, hoping to be published, copies line for line a popular wizard book series. The young writer sends the work to her publisher and says she wrote it. This author has committed plagiarism by submitting someone else’s work as her own and, in addition, has committed copyright infringement by copying someone else’s protected work without permission.

While it can be difficult to discern the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement, in short, plagiarism is an ethical violation that occurs most often in academic situations when a party takes credits for work that was not of their own authorship while copyright infringements occur when a party copies, reproduces, distributes, displays or performs, or makes a derivate version of a protected work without permission of the copyright owner or the law. As noted above, there are also instances where an act can be both plagiarism and infringement. For more information about copyright protection, fair use, or any of the other topics discussed above, please visit the Copyright Alliance’s FAQ pages.

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