How to avoid falling into the plagiarism pit

How to avoid falling into the plagiarism pit


Plagiarism: ‘To take ideas, writing, etc. from another and pass them off as one’s own’

Copyright: ‘The exclusive right to publication, sale, etc. of a literary or artistic work ‘

As authors, we have all taken material from various sources and used it in our writing. After all, books, magazines, newspapers and various online media is a rich hunting ground for ideas, data and information. If it is there, might as well use the stuff, right? After all, I don’t pretend to know everything. However true, look out for the dragons waiting there before you are tempted, keeping in mind the wise adage caveat emptor. What does that mean? Simply put, not everything out there is free for the taking. As we all know, hardly anything is, and if you do happen to ‘borrow’ someone else’s material, you may find yourself in that plagiarism pit. Just falling into it wouldn’t be all that bad … if it weren’t for the teeth.

Webster’s got it pretty right when they defined plagiarism. What does it mean for writers? Basically, don’t do it! Having said that, realizing that we don’t know everything, how do you avoid the teeth in the pit? There is one single and unbreakable rule every writer should follow: If you are not certain, ask! This means that you must find out if the material is copyright protected.

The U.S. Copyright Office provides volumes of guidelines, copyrighted of course, but the meaning is very clear.

‘Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.

‘Copyright law does not protect names, titles, or short phrases or expressions. Even if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or lends itself to a play on words, it cannot be protected by copyright. The U.S. Copyright Office cannot register claims to exclusive rights in brief combinations of words.’

How long does copyright remain in effect?

‘For works published after 1977, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. However, if the work is a work for hire (that is, the work is done in the course of employment or has been specifically commissioned) or is published anonymously or under a pseudonym, the copyright lasts between 95 and 120 years, depending on the date the work is published.

‘All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. Works published after 1922, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication.’

Let’s pick this apart a little.

If you are in a discussion with someone and that generates an idea for a short story or longer work, can that person later claim ownership of that idea and demand a portion of your royalties? No. Unless the discussion is recorded in some medium, the material is not subject to copyright. Anybody can have an idea, but it takes a writer to translate it into words. However, if that someone provided substantial input, the author would be wise to credit that person in his story or book as a contributing source.

As we all know, the Internet is a bottomless mine of information and data, although not always reliable or accurate, and Wikipedia is a great source that saved many of us endless hours of library time. If a writer lifts a sentence or paragraph from a posted article and inserts it in his work, is he violating copyright? Technically, yes, but the likelihood of redress by the article’s author is remote, the material deemed as being free to use, unless the article has a clear copyright notice. Again, the author should provide credit to the originator of that article. This does not apply where the author largely paraphrases a sentence or paragraph.

The Internet is also a great source of stock images and photos that can be used for any number of reasons by a writer, including a readymade book cover, although such use is not advisable, as somebody else could have used that same image. Many images are free, and identified as such, and can be used without any liability. However, others demand that credit be provided when used, such as images sourced from NASA or other government bodies. Where an image is labeled as being copyrighted, the writer must seek and obtain written permission from the person who posted that image before using it, or face negative publicity and possible legal action.

What about lifting a sentence or paragraph from a book or magazine? If the source material was published in the United States before 1923, it is deemed to be in the public domain and the contents can be used in any way. Works published after 1922, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. However, before a writer rushes and extracts a chapter of an old published novel, it would be wise to check with the author’s estate or publisher. Even when there is no copyright protection, the writer should provide credit to the source of the material used.

If a writer is tempted to use material published after 1977, don’t! Even where material is paraphrased, the writer should provide credit to the source of the material used. If copying a sentence or paragraph, written permission must be obtained from the author or publisher, and appropriate credit provided, or the writer will risk legal wrath, public embarrassment, and potential financial ruin.

‘Borrowing’ literary material is one thing, but what about factual data? All historical information is deemed to be in the public domain and is free to use. This covers ‘data’, such as dates, names, places, and events, and applies equally to ‘data’ available in various textbooks and scientific publications. However, this use does not extend to direct copying of a sentence or paragraph. Permission should always be sought before doing so and credit given.

By now, every writer should have gotten the hint that plagiarism of someone else’s intellectual property is frowned upon. If you are not certain, ask! Remember the teeth in the plagiarism pit.

By the way, this article is copyrighted!

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