Copyright Infringement vs. Plagiarism

Copyright is complicated — there is no doubt about it. It overlaps with a lot of other issues in academic integrity and scholarship, including plagiarism. While copyright infringement and plagiarism can and do sometimes occur at the same time, they are separate concerns.

Plagiarism is using someone’s ideas or words and passing them off as your own or not giving the original author credit. Copyright infringement is using someone’s copyright materials — visual works, literary works, or otherwise — without permission (and without a fair use or other legal exemption). This includes sharing works, making copies of the work, and editing or remixing the work, among other actions.

a lego pirate figurine
Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Using Your Own Work

Whether you can use your own copyrighted works depends on what your publisher allows. For example, to make copies of an article you wrote to give to your friends, you might need to get permission from the publisher if you signed away your right to distribute your work in your author contract. This can be especially frustrating, so it is important to carefully review your publishing contracts and add an addendum when necessary.

Self-plagiarism is another mistake to watch out for. Self-plagiarism occurs when you use work that you have previously published in a new work, without referencing your previous publication. It is important to let readers know the scholarly history of your thought, especially in scientific research; for students, self-plagiarism can result in academic dishonesty sanctions.

letters flying out of an open book
Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

Examples

Q: Adam uses several sentences from his dissertation in a new research paper he is writing; since he is using his own work, he decides not to cite it. What’s wrong with this scenario?

A: This is self-plagiarism.

Q: Beatrice is part of a book group with other members of the physics department. She thinks they would really like copies of her dissertation, which was published as a book last year by a commercial publisher. She doesn’t want them to have to buy the book, so she makes copies of it for each of them. What’s wrong with this scenario?

A: This is copyright infringement.

Learn more in our LibGuides for Copyright and Fair UseCiting Sources, and College Writing, read up in the blog post “Using Images on Blogs and Social Media (or: Pictures on the Internet Aren’t Copyrighted, Right?),” or contact a librarian for help with your writing and research.

This post was contributed by Georgia Westbrook, Open Educational Resources & Instruction Librarian.

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