Chapter 5: Using information ethically

5.6 Copyright infringement versus plagiarism

Because plagiarism and copyright infringement are both related to the ethical reuse of ideas and content, it can be confusing to understand where one ends and the other begins. One way to differentiate between the two is to examine the consequences of each.

When someone commits copyright infringement by sharing materials without permission from the copyright holder, this is a legal offense and can incur financial penalties. The consequences of these actions could include having something taken down from the internet, fines, or even jail time.

In contrast, when someone commits plagiarism, they haven’t broken any state or federal law and can’t be thrown in jail for that offense. However, because plagiarism involves stealing someone else’s ideas, it’s still unethical. For students, this can lead to failing a course or being kicked out of college. After graduation, plagiarism could lead to the loss of professional credibility and even get them fired.

Copyright infringement in the context of research

Now that you understand some basics, let’s compare plagiarism and copyright infringement in the context of being a college student. Building off of the works of other researchers is a core component of scholarship. You don’t need anyone’s permission to quote or cite their work, but you do need to carefully cite your sources to avoid committing plagiarism. Avoiding copyright infringement is more complicated.

Let’s say you want to include some copyrighted photographs (not your own) in a paper you’re writing for a class assignment. Your professor will read your paper, and perhaps your paper will be discussed in class, but it will not be shared outside of the classroom. You carefully cite the photographs in your paper, so you know you are not plagiarizing, but are you infringing on copyright? No, this is not considered copyright infringement because the photos will only be shared in your classroom.

The situation is very different if you want to reuse those photos outside of your class. Not only would you need to cite the images properly, but you would also need to contact the copyright holder and ask for permission to reuse their photographs. The copyright holder would get to decide whether to grant that permission and determine any fees or conditions for reuse. Failing to comply with those conditions would be copyright infringement and put you at risk to be sued.


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