Infringement vs. Plagiarism

I have written about the confusion between infringement and plagiarism.  The two aren’t the same, but they can overlap.  Plagiarism can be copyright infringement, and vice-versa.  It’s also possible to plagiarize without committing copyright infringement, and to infringe a copyright without plagiarizing.

First, let’s define the terms.  According to Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, to plagiarize is “to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own use, without crediting the source.”  Note that I just credited Merriam-Webster with this definition, so according to the definition, I did not plagiarize.  That’s the key to plagiarism – lack of attribution or credit.  By crediting the dictionary, I did not claim the definition as being mine, which would have been dishonest and, in the context of academic writing, unethical.

Copyright infringement, under American law and in many other countries, occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.  As I have often stated in this column, copyright in the United States is automatic when an original expression of an idea is “fixed” in any manner, i.e., in print, digitally, or in stone tablets.  Registration of copyright is not required in the United States, although it is a prerequisite for filing a lawsuit and can confer certain benefit relating to evidence and damages.

If you infringe a person’s copyright it doesn’t matter whether you give credit or attribution, because you have taken a property right.  Think of it this way: If I steal Bob’s wallet and then use his cash to buy an ultra-HD television, does it make any difference if I tell the salesclerk, “this money comes from Bob?”  Of course not – I would still be a thief.  Likewise, if you were to include a scene written by Patricia Cornwell in your novel, it doesn’t make any difference if you state “Some scenes written by Patricia Cornwell.”  You’ve still infringed her copyright as well as plagiarized her (and get ready for a letter from Patricia’s lawyers.)

But how can one be guilty of plagiarism and not copyright infringement?  This is possible because not all plagiarized material is protected by copyright.  The material may be in the public domain, or constitute fair use, or for some other reason isn’t subject to copyright.  For example, my use of the Merriam-Webster definition above wasn’t copyright infringement because my use in this column meets the definition of “fair use” (a whole other subject).  Another example: If I were to publish a story by Mark Twain under my name, I would not be guilty of copyright infringement — his work is in the public domain — but I would be a plagiarist.

In essence, copyright infringement is a legal offense, enforceable by our judicial system, while plagiarism is purely an ethical or moral offense, enforceable by publishers, employers, and academic authorities.

© 2020 Daniel Steven