Plagiarism vs. Copyright Infringement

I’ve had several occasions now where a person asked me about one of these topics, but the longer the person talked, the clearer it was that they really meant the other. It’s happened often enough that I felt an article was in order.

Plagiarism is what happens when you fail to cite your sources, or when you pass someone else’s work off as your own. Whenever you put someone else’s ideas or research into your work, you are supposed to tell the reader where that fact or idea came from. When you don’t give credit where credit is due, you have stolen from the original source.

What puzzles me is that, even though it is generally agreed that plagiarism is wrong, there are actually no statutes or laws against it. If you commit plagiarism, the injured party can’t sue you for it. There are penalties within the academic community, though – up to and including expulsion for students and firing for professors. They take plagiarism very seriously.

For example, I recall a story one professor told my class when I was in college, where a student had passed off another professor’s paper as his own. The professor didn’t discover the plagiarism until the following academic year. She reported it to the appropriate authorities at the college, but added that she didn’t think anything could be done since the student had graduated.

“Oh no,” the person replied. “This student only thinks he graduated. He’s about to get a very scary letter explaining his error.”

Copyright infringement, on the other hand, is using or copying someone’s creative expression without permission. Copyright does not protect facts or ideas, only the expression of them (i.e. the exact words used to describe or explain the facts or ideas).

Unlike plagiarism, there are laws against copyright infringement, so a copyright owner could pursue an infringer in court. There are also criminal statutes against copyright infringement, so the government could prosecute an infringer as well – though mostly they only do that in big cases involving massive amounts of infringement.

There is some overlap between the two. Most cases of plagiarism involve works that are protected by copyright, so a person who directly quotes the original work – or takes the whole thing and calls it his own – would be guilty of copyright infringement as well as plagiarism.

So what’s a person to do?

The solution for plagiarism is fairly simple: cite your sources. It’s much better to be over-inclusive than under-inclusive, especially in the academic world. When in doubt, include a citation.

Copyright infringement is a bit more complicated. The ideal solution would be to get the copyright owner’s permission, in writing, to use their work in your own writing. But the owner can be hard to track down, and in some cases they may refuse. If you feel you must include something from a copyrighted source, and you can’t get permission, you can rely on fair use. The fair use doctrine is much too complicated to talk about here, so I will simply say that it is best to do a risk analysis, preferably with a lawyer, before relying on it.

If you have any questions, or would like to learn more on the subject, you are welcome to email me at

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