Plagiarism What It is Its Effects and What the Law Has to Say About It

What plagiarism is and the legal issues of this area

From academia to business, the stealing of ideas is something that is not only a pain but it is illegal, immoral, and should be stopped. Whether or not this is going to happen is another thing altogether. Many people - writers, authors and serious students put a lot of work into what they produce only to run the risk of someone who is unscrupulous stealing the work and then rubbing salt into the wound by passing it off as their own. This is why educational establishments come down hard on someone who is caught doing this. It is only fair that this subject is dealt with and this article aims to do this in no uncertain terms.

What is plagiarism?

Simply put, plagiarism is taking someone's ideas and written work and passing it off as one's own original work even it is paraphrased rather than a verbatim copy. Now, an important distinction has to be made here. Using a small properly-attributed quote, or other correctly-CITED sources does not count as plagiarism. There are different types and levels of plagiarism, each with their own severity of seriousness and punishment. They are as follows (Source: http://definitions.uslegal.com/p/plagiarism/ - accessed 04 January 2010):

· Duplicating someone's work without using appropriate marks such as quotation marks and/or accurate referencing including footnotes

· Duplicating someone's words, phrases WITH footnotes and references but no quotation marks

· Paraphrasing someone's work without referencing it properly and / or using footnotes

· Submitting and copying a work where the words are just rearranged even though they have been footnoted

Is it really that serious?

Yes, it is, within the academia and journalism circles. If you are found guilty of plagiarism in a college and/or university, the least you can expect is a severe warning (if it is done unintentionally) up to expulsion and a potential future as college or school dropout. It is seen as a breach of journalistic ethics and any journalist who has been caught plagiarising faces disciplinary action and could lose their job.

The problem at the moment is whether plagiarism falls under the laws that are currently in place. Having done some research, the area is sketchy to say the least. This is because the law makes a distinction between copyright infringement and plagiarism. One of the key things is the copying itself and its consequences. When it comes to plagiarism, the key issue is that the copying is not being acknowledged or not being acknowledged properly which is dishonest. With regard to copyright infringement, the key issues are whether the creation of the new text involved copying of the old text (i.e. copied text) and the extent or amount of the old text was used. Even if someone acknowledges their sources when they are producing their document, a publisher can still successfully sue--especially if there is some economic value in the stuff that was being copied.

Unfortunately in both UK and USA law, there is no outright ban on copying because there is the 'fair use' clause which opens a whole load of legal and literary worms. If you want to know more about this subject, click here. It explains this area in some detail, what this is and how it relates to this area. Taking lumps out of a book and copying it word for word in your document is going to result in copyright infringement. If you have written a 200 page book and 50 pages of that book are straight out of someone else's work, it is plagiarising on a large scale and can result in legal action being taken against you as the intent is to deceive and misrepresent yourself as the author. Even if a few of the words have been changed does not mean that the plagiariser will get away with it (this goes back to the fact that paraphrasing is considered a form of plagiarism.)

Is it possible to plagiarise ideas and concepts?

The simple answer to that is no. In UK law at least, only expression (recording or written) of ideas is protected. The best example of this can be seen in the automobile sector. There are cars out there that have exactly the same shape even though they were made by totally different companies. As a cake maker, you cannot copyright cake shapes or icing techniques or anything like that. If you write about it, then that is another matter. What if someone steals ideas and copies the text from your book? Then you can you can go after them, but only if you can prove it. The burden of proof is heavy so be careful before doing so and SEEK legal advice. What Joss Saunders said in her article Plagiarism and the Law (2007): sums it up succinctly:

"The difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement is illustrated by the judge’s comment “An acknowledgement is an irrelevance from the point of view of infringement of copyright save in limited perhaps statutory defences which are not raised in this case.

So it is clear that an academic who takes the ideas of another, and expresses them in an original way in a new article is not infringing copyright, even if the conduct be thought to be unethical and a plagiarism. That does not mean however that the plagiarism is without legal effect."

Plagiarism is something that is punishable as educational institutions crack down on this area. The fact that copyright infringement can be sometimes be difficult to prove and plagiarising can be more so, should not mean the law should not offer protection (or more protection than it is currently offering). If educational facilities come down hard in this area, then the law should also. To see how one state statute is dealing with this area, click on this link. If there is an agreement that there is to be no plagiarism between two people and people agree to it, then if it happens, there is protection. I know that on websites there is small print covering a myriad of area--but what about plagiarism? If it were me, I would include a clause along the lines of "by clicking here or by using this site, you are agreeing to not plagiarise any of the content and images contained here and anyone who is caught plagiarising the content will be subject to legal action" It is important to be clear and not bury it. Many people, myself included, tend to click on sites without reading the small print, perhaps it is time this changed, and took the time to request wording from our publishers that protects us.

To summarise, plagiarism is not a new problem and is not going away no matter how sophisticated the detective software is. The Internet has brought us access to information and data on a huge scale and along with this, problems when it comes to plagiarism and copyright. Ignorance can no longer be used as an excuse when it comes to this area, whether you are a writer or a legislator. What will the future bring to this area? Hopefully some clarification and some tightening so here's hoping...

Take care and God bless...

Ngozi Nwabineli © 07 January 2010

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