Copyright vs. Plagiarism

Q.  I’m confused.  What’s the difference between copyright infringement and plagiarism?  Aren’t they the same?

A.  Your confusion is typical.  The two aren’t the same – but they CAN overlap.  Indeed, plagiarism can be copyright infringement, and vice-versa, but it’s also possible to plagiarize without committing copyright infringement, and infringe a copyright without plagiarizing.

First, let’s define terms.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to plagiarize is “to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one’s own use . . without crediting the source.”  Note that I just credited Merriam-Webster with this definition, so according to the definition, I did not plagiarize.  That’s the real key to plagiarism – lack of attribution or credit.  By crediting the dictionary, I haven’t claimed the definition as being mine, which would have been dishonest (and, in the context of academic writing, unethical).

Copyright infringement, by contrast, occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.  (As I have often stated in this column, copyright in the United States is automatic when an original expression of an idea is “fixed” in any manner:  In print, digitally, or in stone tablets; registration is not required, although it confers benefits).

If you infringe a person’s copyright, however, it doesn’t matter whether you give credit or attribution, because you have taken a property right.  Think of it this way: If I steal Bob’s wallet and then use his cash to buy a stereo, does it make any difference if I tell the sales clerk, “this money comes from Bob?”  Of course not – I still am a thief.  Likewise, if you were to include a scene from Ken Follett’s latest book in your novel, it doesn’t make any difference if you state “Some scenes written by Ken Follett.”  You’ve still infringed (and get ready for a letter from Ken’s lawyers.)

But how can one be guilty of plagiarism and not copyright infringement?  It’s possible because not all plagiarized material is protected by copyright:  plagiarism includes passing off ideas as your own, as well as expressions of ideas, and only expressions of ideas or concepts are protected by copyright.  Further, the use of an otherwise protectable expression of idea may not be infringing because the material is in the public domain, or constitute fair use, or for some other reason not be subject to copyright.  For example, my use of the Merriam-Webster definition above wasn’t copyright infringement because my use in this column meets the definition of “fair use” (which is a whole other subject).  Another example: If I were to publish a story by Mark Twain under my name, I would not be guilty of copyright infringement (his work is in the public domain) but I would be a plagiarizer.

In essence, copyright infringement is a legal offense, enforceable by our judicial system, while plagiarism is purely an ethical or moral offense, enforceable by employers and academic authorities.