Many people get plagiarism and copyright issues mixed up. After all, both deal with information use and re-use.
Plagiarism is a form of intellectual theft and an ethical violation. When someone commits plagiarism they haven’t broken any state or federal law and can’t be thrown in jail for their offense. They have, however, broken a shared trust between themselves, their peers, and their institution. Once detected, it may be difficult or impossible for plagiarists to regain credibility and respect among their communities.
Copyright infringement is a legal offense that may incur financial penalties. When someone commits copyright infringement, consequences range from having something taken down from the internet, to jail time or facing fines.
Using Works by Others in Your Creations
Now that you understand some basics, let’s compare plagiarism and copyright infringement in the context of information use. Quoting or building off of the works of researchers who came before you is a core component of scholarship. You don’t need anyone’s permission to quote or cite their work as something you consulted for your own paper or creation, but you do need to carefully cite your sources to avoid committing plagiarism.
Copyright 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. You carefully cite in your paper where the photographs came from, who was the photographer, and so on. 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. This is an example of what’s commonly called “educational use,” and is not considered a copyright violation.
But what happens if you want to publish your paper? Not only would you need to cite the image sources properly, you would also need to contact the copyright holder and ask for permission to use the photographs in your publication. The copyright holder gets to decide the outcome and any conditions or fees for use. If you didn’t comply with those conditions, you would be infringing copyright (that is, breaking the law) and putting yourself at legal risk to be sued.
It is unlikely that you will have to deal with a lawsuit over copyright infringement at this stage in your studies, if ever. However, it is good to know that there are work-arounds to copyright restrictions – namely, using your own content or materials that are not copyrighted. There are also special provisions called fair use that allow easier use and reuse of copyrighted materials for educational purposes. Fair use is often misunderstood, so let’s take a quick look at what it really means.