Monday, October 4, 2010

Hey, I wrote that!

“What a good thing Adam had-----when he said a good thing, he knew nobody had said it before.” Mark Twain

Plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work, ideas, thoughts, opinions, theories, statistics, facts, drawings, or paraphrasing as your own. There are two common forms of plagiarisms

1. Duplicating another’s words or phrases, etc. without identifying the speaker or author, with or without quotation marks.

2. Using and selling another’s ideas by paraphrasing or rearranging them without noting sources. Ignorance of the laws is not a valid defense.


The devil is in the details however. According to copyright laws established in 1989, works are now protected with or without the copyright symbol; they are considered intellectual property. As long as the material can be shown to belong to someone else, it is considered plagiarism. Copyright laws do not protect facts considered “common knowledge.” Common knowledge is defined loosely as information generally known, e.g., Roosevelt was the author of the New Deal. Copyright laws can be in effect up to 75 years after the death of the author. There are many variants of the length depending upon how old the work is, in what country it was published and who owns the copyright.

A gray area is “public domain.” This often means intellectual property that “belongs” to the public (Lord’s Prayer, the Big Apple but not the King James version of the Bible) and therefore can be used freely and copied. There are variations of law depending on copyright laws in different countries as well as patents and trademarks. It is best to check with an attorney if you are uncertain.

The punishments vary depending upon the venue and the amount of material copied. The more you copy and use, the greater the punishment. Most cases are considered misdemeanors bringing fines between $100 and $50,000 and can include up to one year in jail. Generally, your offense is considered a felony if you earn more than about $2,500 from the plagiarized work. Penalties are severe.

There are several ways to protect yourself from prosecution of plagiary. Understand what constitutes plagiarism. When taking notes from various sources for your writing, clearly identify anything that is not in the public domain or not in your original words and thoughts. Keep all your notes, electronic, recorded and penned, in several backups in various venues. Date all your work. Back up your computer files using different names every time you work on it: essay plagerism-1, essay plagerism-2. This will give you a paper and time trail to strengthen your case should you be charged or you wish to charge someone else with plagiarism.

An excellent resource on public domain items: http//

DISCLAIMER: This post does not constitute legal advice.


Mary Jane Honegger said...

Thanks for the reminder, Nancy. As someone who does research for articles, I often worry about plagiarism. I have learned to eliminate my dependency on another’s words by taking well-referenced notes, saving them as backup, and then beginning my article as a new document. I refer to the original notes only when I would like to include a quote for reference or support. In this way I’m strengthening my ability to organize, define, and explain the subject in my own words. Although similarities may occur, I know I’ve done my best to limit my risk of plagiarism; and have, in fact, strengthened the credibility of my words by citing additional sources to support the facts, figures, and opinions included in my writing. One thing you made me realize, Nancy, is that plagiarizing doesn't pay! For some reason, it carries a much higher fine than most white-collar crime. Up to $50,000 for earnings of $2,500? Ouch!!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

Thanks for this useful information for writers. Writers want to avoid plagarism at all costs and need to remain vigilant. To add to Norm's resource, writers can download a free PDF file of the Copyright Law at

Mary Jane Honegger said...

Hey, Norm. Sorry I thought you were Nancy. You just sounded so intelligent, I got mixed up! One good lesson for writers is to READ before we write. I'll try that next time. I can't believe you didn't chew me out and let me know - Hey, I wrote that!

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

A college professor once advised us to review our notes, then turn them over or put them away to begin our own writing, referring to them only, as Mary Jane noted, to copy a direct quote with proper attribution. Of course this was back in the Dark Ages before the oh-so-simple cut-and-paste option.