Copyright Infringement, Plagiarism and Fair Use

Contrary to popular belief, the word plagiarism is not synonymous with copyright infringement. Not every incident of plagiarism is copyright infringement, especially when public domain works are involved. On the flip side, not every incident of copyright infringement is plagiarism, such as the alleged infringements of file sharers.

On a related note, not all reuse of copyrighted material is copyright infringement or plagiarism. Some uses are perfectly legal and ethical, thus getting them dubbed “fair use”.

However, on the Web, these terms are getting thrown around with reckless abandon. People, who often aren’t aware of the subtle nuances that separate the terms, use them in incorrect ways and cause confusion, often turning a legitimate complaint into a questionable matter.

So, given what’s at stake, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about these terms, what they entail and how to use them correctly. After all, if the terms are worth using, they’re worth using correctly.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright Infringement is defined as “the unauthorized use of copyrighted material in a manner that violates one of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights, such as the right to reproduce or perform the copyrighted work, or to make derivative works that build upon it.”

You can infringe upon a copyright in many different ways. You can duplicate a work, rewrite a piece, perform a written work or do anything that is normally considered to be the exclusive right of the copyright holder. As such, copyright infringement is a very broad term that describes a variety of acts.

Copyright infringement is also against the law. A wide range of civil punishments can be levied against people who infringe upon copyrights and, in some cases, criminal charges can also be filed.

The main thing to remember is that copyright infringement is a broad term used to catch every conceivable way that one can violate another’s copyright.


Plagiarism is defined as “the use of another’s information, language, or writing, when done without proper acknowledgment of the original source.” However, the critical element of it is the final part. The one thing that ties all plagiarism together is going beyond merely duplicating the work, but also not crediting the source and thus taking the material for yourself.

Thus, plagiarism is a very specific act and the term only means one thing. It is also, generally, considered to be a much more morally heinous act as it involves deception (lying to others about the origins of the work) and generally has a much greater impact on the copyright holder.

However, not all incidents of plagiarism are considered copyright infringement. Plagiarizing works in the public domain, though unethical, is not considered copyright infringement. Also, plagiarism, in and of itself, is not illegal. While it can be considered a mitigating factor in the event a legal dispute should arise, it is only considered illegal if it also constitutes copyright infringement.

The important thing to remember, though, is that plagiarism refers to using someone else’s work without providing attribution. Though it’s possible to infringe upon a copyright while attributing a source properly, it is not possible to plagiarize.

Fair Use

Fair use is a legal gray area that refers to exceptions in the rights of copyright holders and allows for limited use of copyrighted material, even without permission. However, the conditions in which fair use can be claimed are not set in stone and depend upon four factors:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

In short, using short, attributed snippets of a piece for the purpose of commentary or education is generally considered fair use. However, reprinting an entire work without attribution for the purpose of self-promotion or profit isn’t. The shorter the amount copied and the more it is for the purpose of commentary or education, the more likely it is to be deemed fair use.

One important note about fair use is that all incidents of it involve attribution. An act of plagiarism never falls under fair use. So, if you ever want to claim fair use when copying from someone else’s work, you need to make sure to follow proper attribution procedures, just to be safe.

Edit: The above paragraph is incorrect. Please see this article with updated and more accurate information.

An Example

As one might imagine, these terms often get thrown around incorrectly a great deal and can add a lot of tension to an already hostile situation.

An example of this recently took place at Babayaga. There, an article on the comic character Wicked Wanda (Note: Link contains an image of drawn nudity) copied and pasted an article from Don Markstein’s Toonopedia.

Though the copied content was definitely sizable, as you can see in this screenshot of the original article, and a definite violation of copyright law and the DMCA (considering it would fail any fair use test), it was not technically plagiarism as the use was credited in the footer. However, Mr. Markstein, when writing to complain about the misuse of the material, used the term to make sure he was clear to someone outside of the publishing fields. Though his reasons were genuine, the use of the term caused the situation to get very far off track (Note: I do not agree with nor condone the content of this link).

For, while Mr. Markstein certainly had a legitimate complaint, it wasn’t a plagiarism one. Though it’s clear he understands more about copyright law than the blogger in question, it was a simple mix up in terminology that caused the whole thing to get out of hand.

That’s why it’s important, when trying to resolve these matters, to use the correct terms and try hard not to unintentionally hurl false accusations. This is an area that brings about enough strong emotions without the aid of miscommunication.

So taking a moment to get terms straight and make sure we understand one another is critical. Perhaps this brief explanation will be able to help out with that.

[tags]Plagiarism, Copyright Infringement, Content Theft, Fair Use, Copyright[/tags]

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