What is the Difference Between Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

While many people think that copyright infringement and plagiarism are more or less the same thing, that is not the case. In a sense, there is some connection between plagiarism and infringement of copyright in many situations, but the use of the two terms interchangeably is not correct. Here is some information on how the two are related, as well as how they differ.

If copyright infringement is proven in a court of law, a jail sentence can be imposed,.
If copyright infringement is proven in a court of law, a jail sentence can be imposed,.

Copyright infringement is the unauthorized use of the creation of another individual. Just about any type of created art form could be included in this category. Such items as articles, stories, books, songs, movie clips, and photographs are all examples of creative works that are copyrighted. Unauthorized use takes place when someone chooses to utilize these copyrighted creations without obtaining permission from the owner. In situations where authorization would involve providing compensation to the owner, the failure to do so would also fall under the heading of infringement.

Photographs are examples of creative works that are copyrighted.
Photographs are examples of creative works that are copyrighted.

Plagiarism shares some elements with copyright infringement. Both situations can involve the unauthorized use of intellectual property. However, it is possible to plagiarize without infringing on a copyright. For example, if a student preparing a report chooses to use a quote from a source and does not properly cite the original source, he or she is essentially claiming the quote to be his or her own words. This amounts to stealing the words of another person. While the quote may be from a work in the public domain and is not subject to any claims of compensation, plagiarism has still taken place.

There is also a legal difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism. Federal laws in many countries protect the interests of citizens who hold copyrights. When those copyrighted works are used without permission, the owner has legal recourse to collect damages as well as receive a share of any revenue generated from the unauthorized use. In some countries, it is possible for the punishment to include a prison sentence if copyright infringement is proven in a court of law.

By contrast, plagiarism is usually more a matter of ethics than of law. The failure to provide a proper citation for a direct quote will not necessarily carry any type of legal punishment. However, engaging in plagiarism often leads to censure by academic institutions and employers. For example, a writer who presents the work of another writer as his or her own and is caught in the act of plagiarism is likely to be dismissed from the workplace. Freelance writers who plagiarize often find that word gets around and it becomes extremely difficult to secure assignments. While the chances of going to jail for plagiarism are somewhat limited, the negative impact can have repercussions that will last for years.

Because of fair use practices in many countries, copyright law can sometimes blur the lines between copyright infringement and plagiarism. This means that it is possible to plagiarize and infringe on copyright at the same time. However, plagiarism that is also copyright infringement is usually not pursued in a court of law unless some type of economic harm to the owner can be demonstrated.

Students who plagiarize from other students may face harsh penalties.
Students who plagiarize from other students may face harsh penalties.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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