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Plagiarism On the Internet and What You Can Do When It Happens to You

The word plagiarism has been around since the 1620s, and plagiary since the late 1500s, so this is not some newfangled idea people made up to make life difficult. It has been considered a bad thing to claim the works of others as one's own for hundreds of years — be the works written, visual, or conceptual — but people seem more confused than ever now about what plagiarism is and why it is a bad thing to do.

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A common misconception these days is that works published on the internet somehow fall outside the usual rules of theft and appropriation, but the truth is that the rules don't change just because something is published in one medium and not another. The same rules apply whether the material being used is from a printed book, a recording, or someone's website.

People often use words like "borrowing" or "copying" to describe what happens when work is plagiarized, but the truth is that it is actually fraud to falsely claim ownership of another author's work and present it as your own.

Yes, FRAUD.

I have had to deal with plagiarism more than once over the last couple of years, and, in each circumstance, the individuals who plagiarized my work not only did not admit to wrong-doing, but they also persisted in the plagiarism until I either wrote about their actions publicly or, as in this last instance, had their website removed from the internet altogether by their web host until they removed the plagiarized content.

In light of my most recent experience, I thought I'd offer a brief education about plagiarism, fair dealing/fair use, copyright, how to avoid plagiarizing others, and how you can deal with plagiarism of your own work, because a lot of us have not been taught what the boundaries are, and it really gets in the way of good internet citizenship when someone crosses the line.

This isn't only about being a good neighbour, though. It is your responsibility to be aware of and then act according to copyright law and fair dealing/fair use if you publish online and/or use social sites like Pinterest, Tumblr, or Facebook, because ignorance of the law is no excuse.


What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is:
  1. when the ideas or words of another are used or closely imitated without the source's permission and passed off as one's own.
  2. when an idea or work is presented as something new but is actually taken from another original source.
  3. when another's work is used or closely imitated without crediting the original source.
The following actions are considered plagiarism:
  • turning in someone else's work as your own
  • copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit
  • failing to put a quotation in quotation marks
  • giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation
  • changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit
  • copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not

What is fair dealing/fair use?

There are circumstances when it is okay to use part of another author's work using what in Canada is termed "fair dealing" and in the United States is termed "fair use".

In Canada, fair dealing "...offers some exceptions to the Copyright Act's general prohibition on copying. Fair dealing allows limited and non-commercial copying for the purposes of research or private study, criticism, review, and news reporting".

In the United States, fair use "...is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and "transformative" purpose such as to comment upon, criticize or parody a copyrighted work."

Fair dealing and fair use basically mean that another author's work can be used in part with certain restrictions without crossing into plagiarism. For instance, you can use a smaller part of a work, such as a quotation of a sentence or paragraph, to comment on or critique it as long as you cite the work in question.


What is copyright?

"Copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work. Copyright does not protect ideas, only their expression." (Wikipedia)

In Canada, "...[copyright] protection is effective even without registration" and is generally held until 50 years after the creator's death, as long as the material meets the following requirements:
  • the material is literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic,
  • it covers the expression of the idea but not the idea itself,
  • the expression of the thought must be original if not the thought itself, and
  • the creator of the work must be connected with "...either Canada or a member of any number of other international trade or copyright treaties, including the Berne Convention."
Further information about copyright in Canada can be found at the Department of Justice Canada website.

In the United States, the following works can be registered for copyright:
  • literary works (articles, stories, journals, computer programs, and pictures and graphics)
  • architectural blueprints
  • music and song lyrics
  • plays and screenplays
  • audiovisual and sound recordings.
Further information about copyright in the United States can be found at the United States Copyright Office website.

Read "Canada and the United States: Differences in Copyright Law" for more information about the similarities and differences between the two countries and how they understand copyright protection.


How you can avoid plagiarizing the works of others:

  • Familiarize yourself with fair dealing/fair use.
  • Familiarize yourself with copyright.
  • Unless otherwise noted by the work's author, assume copyright is in place.
  • Limit your longer quotes to 250 words or less to stay on the safe side of copyright. Wikiquote has good guidelines for safe use regarding quantity.
  • Secure an author's permission before republishing either a larger portion of their work or a copy of it in its entirety.
  • CITE YOUR SOURCES. Use proper citation to accredit online or offline works to their original authors. When online, make sure to link directly to your sources.

How you can deal with plagiarism of your work:

  • Use an online plagiarism checker like Copyscape to scan the internet for copies of your written work being republished without your permission.
  • Save a screen capture of your plagiarized content. You may need this in the future to prove your case.
  • Perform a Whois check for the domain in question if you work is being plagiarized. This should give you information about the website owner and the registrar and how to contact them.
  • Contact the website's owner explaining that the content has been plagiarized and that it must be removed immediately.
  • Contact the hosting provider if the website owner does not remove the offending content. The hosting provider can ask them to remove the offending content or can even remove the website altogether if the website owner fails to comply.
  • Contact the website's advertisers. Plagiarized content is often used to try to boost ad dollars, so contacting their advertisers can remove their incentive to plagiarize.
  • File a report to search engines that your content is being fraudulently reproduced. Search engines can be helpful, because it is in their best interest not to have duplicate content showing up in results. They have the power to ban the site from their listings.
  • Write about the website owner's behaviour publicly. I had to resort to this action at one point, and it was not pretty. This is a course of action best reserved for repeat, unapologetic plagiarizers who refuse to comply with decency and the law. Be careful if you go this route to avoid libel.
  • Pursue legal action against the website owners responsible for the continued plagiarism of your work. If you live in the United States, one option that may be cheaper than hiring a lawyer is DMCA Takedown Services, which uses the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a U.S. copyright law, that "...addresses the rights and obligations of owners of copyrighted material who believe their rights under U.S. copyright law have been infringed, particularly but not limited to, on the Internet".

I want to make it clear that I am not a lawyer, so please do your research when using the works of others and defending your own plagiarized material.

Now, let me repeat: it is your responsibility to be aware of and then act according to copyright law and fair dealing/fair use if you publish online and/or use social sites like Pinterest, Tumblr, or Facebook. We all work hard on the content we create, and if we find content important enough to share, it only makes sense to credit the author behind that content.

Have you ever been plagiarized? Have you ever inadvertently plagiarized another author? What did you do about it?