Plagiarism: An Economic or Moral Issue?

Bill Heinze, the author of the very interesting I/P Updates Blog, recently posted an article about the new LexisNexus Copyguard service. The article, which was critical of Copyguard’s sentence by sentence approach for finding plagiarism, had a quote from Louisiana State University professor Stuart P. Green which said that copyright law:

“Protects a primarily economic interest that a copyright holder has in her work … whereas the rule against plagiarism protects a personal, or moral, interest.”

Even though I have a great deal of respect for both Mr. Heinze and professor Green, the logic of the statement is very flawed, especially when considering the current trend of plagiarism on the Internet.

The Chronicle for Higher Education makes the distinction between plagiarism and copyright infringement on their site with the following statement:

“Strictly speaking, plagiarism, as such, is not illegal — although copyright infringement is. Some forms of plagiarism also count as copyright infringement. Yet the terms are far from identical.”

While this is true of non-verbatim plagiarism, which is mostly prevalent in the academic arena, most of the plagiarism on the Internet is not just word-for-word, but also involving whole works and even complete Web sites. Clearly there is both an economic and a legal interest in these cases.

First off, any verbatim use without attribution will almost certainly fail a fair use test. As such, unless the content stolen is considered too short to be protected under copyright law, it classifies as infringement.

Second, it seems clear that, if we assume that merely copying a work and redistributing it is both copyright infringement and has an economic impact, it seems only logical the redistributing it under another name has an even greater one.

Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater and assuming that plagiarism is solely a moral issue, we have to look at the entire spectrum of plagiarism, not just the academic variety, and ask ourselves a simple question: What would have happened if the work had been credited?

Would the copying have been considered fair use or valid research? Would the harm to the copyright holder still be present? If it’s within the bounds of the law, then I agree it is largely a moral issue. Plagiarism is lying and more and more, people don’t like being lied to. That’s one of the critical reasons plagiarism is being seen as “something much closer to a crime”.

Of course, we must also consider that, even though the likelihood of confusion is usually very small, plagiarism can damage not just the reputation of the plagiarist, but of the original copyright holder. If there is a dispute or controversy surrounding the work, the reputations of both thief and victim can be tainted. In both the academic, professional and the artistic world, that can lead to lost jobs, fewer grants and a slew of other possible “economic” impacts.

In the end, even though most have a tendency to put plagiarism solely in a moral light, I include myself in that statement, the potential for financial impact is very real. Though, personally, I find it very sad that our government is only interested in the economic impact of copyright infringement and plagiarism, as evidenced by its relationship with RIAA and MPAA, the truth is that plagiarism isn’t such a cut and dry issue.

As with any theft, there’s always risk for both economic and personal damage, it’s just not always easy to see one due to the glaring nature of the other.

[tags]Plagiarism, Copyright Law, Copyright Infringement, Content Theft[/tags]

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