Retour Plagiarism: an original sin?

"That the supporting evidence for the accusation of
plagiarism may on occasion be elusive, insufficient, or
uncertain, is not the same as thinking that the definition
of plagiarism is uncertain. The gray areas may remain
resistant to adjudication without being resistant to
definition. It may be perfectly clear what constitutes
plagiarism ("using the work of another with an intent to
deceive") without its being clear that what faces us is a
truly case of this"

Christopher Ricks

It would be difficult to find a way of better describing the problem that plagiarism poses both to the academic and to the legal world. However, if the concept is not resistant to definition, the common use of the word "plagiarism" often leads to confusion because it is used to express different meanings without discrimination:

  • On the one hand, plagiarism is an ethical concept. The Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus defines the verb plagiarize as "to appropriate (ideas, passages, etc.) from (another work or author)" and gives as synonyms "appropriate, borrow, crib, infringe, lift, pirate, steal, thieve". This is not a very precise definition. It lacks the false attribution of authorship as a constituent element of plagiarism. Nevertheless, it does contain a strong incriminatory character.
  • On the other hand, certain cases of plagiarism can have legal consequences. However, plagiarism is not a legal doctrine and the term as such cannot be found in any Copyright or Author's Rights Act. The lawyer may generally speak of plagiarism for cases in which the unauthorised use of a work coupled with a false attribution of authorship infringes upon the copyrights of the original author. Although both concepts may appear to the lay person as being the same, copyright infringement is a much narrower concept, and therefore acts of plagiarism may constitute copyright infringement only in very precise cases.

To understand fully the difference between unethical plagiarism and copyright infringement, one must first and foremost look at the interests that each of these norms protect. The ethical rule against plagiarism protects first of all the original author's reputation but also the interests of third parties, like readers and academic or professional institutions, so that these parties are not led into believing that the plagiarist has created an original work. In contrast, the aim of copyright is solely to protect the author's interests (of both moral and economic nature). This legal protection is achieved by giving him/her certain exclusive rights to exert control over his/her work.

The protection of different interests requires different remedies. This is another factor distinguishing plagiarism from copyright infringement. As an illustration, let us imagine a student who borrows a friend's paper and passes it off as his/her own at the University. This will constitute an academic offence and will have an impact on the student's academic record. If the same student has this very paper published as his/her own and the original author gives his/her consent to that publication, that may still be a case of plagiarism to the reader's eye but definitively not a case of copyright infringement. If our student does not ask for permission, a suit for copyright infringement will most probably follow.

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Author: Francisco Javier Cabrera Blázquez, OBS. 01/09/2004
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