Plagiarism and copyright infringement both involve the misuse of someone else’s work, but in different circumstances and with different consequences.
Copyright infringement is the act of using someone else’s work that’s protected by copyright without permission when it’s required for such usage. Copyright protection exists the very moment someone creates a work in a fixed or tangible medium (putting pen to paper, clicking save on your computer, clicking the shutter on your camera…). The artist or creator does not need to federally register their work to have such rights; they are automatic.
The act of copyright infringement is a federal crime. A person who is ultimately found liable for copyright infringement may be subject to monetary damages or even jail time.
Plagiarism, on the other hand, is the act of passing someone’s work off as your own. To my knowledge, it is not an illegal act, but rather a moral and ethical offense that can have serious consequences in academic and professional settings or to your reputation. Copying someone’s work verbatim can lead to failing grades, expulsions, reputational damage, and even the loss of one’s job.
It’s possible to commit plagiarism without violating someone’s copyright and vice versa. It’s also possible to commit both offenses at the same time. Here are a few examples:
- Plagiarism: A student tries to pass off a paragraph of an author’s text verbatim in a term paper as her own. The small portion of text that was used would be considered plagiarism but not copyright infringement because it was done in an educational setting where fair use issues likely apply. The student is punished with a failing grade but does not face legal consequences.
- Copyright Infringement: A student prints a famous poem that gives full credit to the author on a t-shirt and attempts to sell the merchandise on Esty. This is copyright infringement, as the student is using a copyrighted work in a way that he or she does not have permission to, regardless of whether or not credit was given to the author.
- Both plagiarism and copyright infringement: A music student copies the words to a current song and submits it to his teacher, claiming them to be his own. The student then takes the song and uploads the lyrics to his website and begins to promote them as his own on social media. This is likely a case of both plagiarism and copyright infringement.
Again, while plagiarism and copyright infringement are different offenses, it can be easy to blur the lines between the two. As a rule of thumb, steer clear of using or misappropriating someone else’s original art or content without permission. Committing to this general practice can help you avoid committing both plagiarism and copyright infringement in the future.
If you have additional questions about what constitutes copyright infringement or you are concerned that someone is misusing a copyrighted work that you own, please contact our office at (888) 666-0062 to schedule a consultation.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this article is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for obtaining legal advice from an attorney.