The Difference Between Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism

Difference ImageEight years ago (nearly to the day), shortly after the launch of the site, I wrote an article entitled “Copyright Infringement, Plagiarism and Fair Use“. However, the age is beginning to show on the article (both literally and figuratively) and I decided to come back to the topic with fresh eyes.

The reason is that this is a site that deals with both plagiarism and copyright issues on the Internet, specifically, the intersection between the two. This site was founded as a resource for detecting plagiarism of copyrighted works and stopping it, generally using copyright law.

However, to complete that mission, it is important to understand the differences and similarities between plagiarism and copyright infringement. This is because, even though the two have a great deal of overlap, they also have key differences that content creators need to be aware of.

So, without any further ado, here’s a brief look at copyright infringement, plagiarism, their similarities and their differences.

Defining Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is simply any infringement up on the rights of a copyright holder.

Copyright law gives a copyright holder (usually the creator of the work) a set of rights that they and they alone can exploit legally (save for exceptions such as fair use). Those rights include:

  • The right to reproduce (copy) a work.
  • The right to create derivative works based upon it.
  • The right to distribute copies of the work to the public.
  • The right to publicly display or perform the work.

This means a wide variety of activities can be copyright infringing including performing a copyrighted play without permission, writing an unauthorized sequel to a work or simply making copies of the work.

In short, copyright infringement is a very broad term, rooted in the law, that covers a wide range of unlawful activities that violate the rights (granted by the law) to copyright holders.

Defining Plagiarism

But where copyright infringement is a construct of the law, plagiarism is a construct of ethics.

Most broadly, plagiarism is defined as the taking the original work or works of another and presenting it as your own.

The definition of “work” can include a variety of things including ideas, words, images, etc. Anything that is seen as an unethical and unattributed use of another’s original creation can be defined as plagiarism.

However, the definition of plagiarism is not always consistent. Different industries, for example, have different standards. A lawyer, for example, is held to different standards than a poet, which is different than a speechwriter and different from a musician.

Because of this, as with copyright infringement, many cases of plagiarism are divisive as to whether or not a violation was committed.

The Similarities

On the surface, plagiarism and copyright both have a great deal in common. Most things that can be plagiarized could be copyrighted. After all, most plagiarism deals with either creative or academic work and those types of works, typically, qualify for copyright protection when they are new.

More importantly though, many plagiarisms are copyright infringements. Plagiarizing a blog post on a new site, copying an encyclopedia article without attribution for a book report or submitting a photograph someone else took under your name to a magazine are all examples of both plagiarism and copyright infringement.

As such, many plagiarisms are actually addressed through the legal framework provided by copyright law. Plagiarized content posted online is often removed with takedown notices, commercial plagiarisms, for example in advertisements, are often dealt with through lawsuits and so forth.

However, not all plagiarisms are copyright infringements and not all copyright infringements are plagiarisms. Though there’s a lot of overlap between them, there’s a lot of areas where they diverge.

The Differences

The key difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement is that not all plagiarisms are infringements and not all infringements are plagiarisms.

For one, a person can plagiarize almost anything, including works that are not protected by copyright. If you were to claim to have written “Hamlet”, for example, it would be a plagiarism but not a copyright infringement because the play is in the public domain and is not protected by copyright.

Also, plagiarism often covers things that are not covered by copyright. Ideas, facts and general plot elements are all things that can be plagiarized, at least in certain situations, but generally don’t qualify for copyright protection.

It’s also worth noting that getting permission to use a work makes the use non-infringing thought it might still be a plagiarism. For example, getting permission to submit a purchased essay means that the use is not an infringement, but it is still a plagiarism as the work is not originally yours.

To make matters more confusing, most copyright infringements don’t really hinge on whether or not a use attributed. For example, if you passed out copies of a play without permission, it’s most likely an infringement whether or not you tried to take credit for it. While plagiarism may have an impact on damages awarded if a lawsuit is filed, attribution generally doesn’t make an infringing action legal.

In short, it’s possible to infringe a work without plagiarizing it and it’s equally possible to plagiarize something without committing copyright infringement.

Bottom Line

Though plagiarism and copyright infringement are often spoken of in the same breath, especially by victims of plagiarism who are seeking justice, it’s important to remember that the two are not the same thing.

Another way to think of it is this. While copyright infringement has one victim, the copyright holder(s), plagiarism has two sets of victims, the copyright holder(s) and the people who were lied to about the origin of the work.

The other important way to look at is that plagiarism is an ethical construct and copyright infringement is a legal one. Though they have a lot of overlap, they are not the same and can never really be the same.

So while plagiarism may come up in copyright discussions and vice versa, it’s important to know that the two are different in some very important ways.

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