Plagiarism is the curse of the global media. It is an unholy mix of legalities, personal interests, and egos. It can be fatal to careers, destroy reputations, and actually involve crime.
Plagiarism is properly defined as Using and claiming ownership for works or ideas which are not one's own.
It is, basically, theft. The use of other people's materials, either verbatim, paraphrased, or even conceptual materials, without accreditation to the owner of the works or ideas, is plagiarism.
The other important definition is that plagiarism is that it's illegal.
All copyright materials, trade marks, etc, are intellectual property.
Copyright exists in all intellectual property which is in tangible form, as described by international copyright laws.
These materials do have owners. Any use of those materials can prima facie be considered to be a breach of intellectual property rights, even if unintentional.
Public Domain- A potentially dangerous exception to the rule
The exception to the above, and it's a very poorly defined legal concept, is Public Domain, where intellectual property rights are assumed to have lapsed. This is common for old TV shows, and other old media.
It is extremely unwise to claim, or consider, anything to be in the Public Domain, unless thoroughly checked.
The reason for this is that the current ownership of rights is nearly always easily legally traceable, and the owner can claim that the user didn't make a proper effort to discover ownership. That's plagiarism by inference, and it's a working argument in a court.
Even attributed use can cause problems. In many cases, users are setting themselves up for litigation, because of inadequate citation of ownership and sources of materials.
Specifically non-copyright materials
Since the advent of the internet, sources of non copyright materials have become very popular.
To avoid plagiarism concerns, any source of this type must show clearly the copyright waiver as a term of use of the source.
Otherwise, materials are by default subject to copyright, no exceptions.
Copyright is created automatically by international law, when the materials are published, broadcast, or put into tangible form.
(Please note also that non copyright sources for written materials are in fact non existent. In many cases, even the purchase, copying and use of these materials is illegal in various ways, see below.)
Verbatim forms of plagiarism
Thanks to the miracles of cut and paste technology, verbatim plagiarism, the most common and easiest to find form of plagiarism, is raging around the world's websites.
This is the exact usage of other people's materials, sometimes remixed, but always using the same words, with the occasional use of a few extra words for grammar or as a conjunction of sentences.
It's also the dumbest form of plagiarism, easy to spot, and a few phrases in a search engine will infallibly find it. In many cases, plagiarized works are characterized by virtually illiterate writing, interspersed with highly technical language, perfectly expressed.
In industry, plagiarism relates to designs, and in some cases even patents, and other very well defined intellectual properties. It's as illegal as the better known forms of plagiarism, but it's also worth millions, if not billions, of dollars. Ideas are valuable, and they get stolen on that basis. Legal defences for owners in this area are very well developed, and effective.
Plagiarism of ideas
The commercial form of plagiarism is a good introduction to the plagiarism of ideas, which is the non-literal, non-verbatim form of plagiarism. The principles are the same, where the main effect is cosmetic, but the substance is virtually identical.
Simple example- A story line
Character A is a duck in a children's story, who eats Character B, who's a frog. Character A has a dream in which it meets Character B, and they live happily ever after. The whole story is about 300 words.
Character A is a sheep, who unintentionally eats Character B, who's a snail. Character A has a spiritual epiphany and meets Character B in a vision, and a gripping moral tale results in 200,000 words.
Story line theft has been common since folk tales were invented. The old method of story telling was a basic plot line, which was embellished by the story teller. If you've read Aesop's Fables, those are the basic story lines, which were turned into entertainment by the storytellers.
You can see on how many points, and how slightly, the original story line in the kids book was barely changed at all. The 199,700 extra words don't really affect the fact of use of the same basic concept and ideas.
This is a very basic version, but in many cases, whole whodunits, even famous classics, have been reengineered but are still quite obvious.
The theft of ideas is one of the toughest components of plagiarism, and the degrees of complexity can range from obvious theft to extreme nuances of interpretation.
Unintentional plagiarism, technical plagiarism, and innocent plagiarism
Despite the fact that most plagiarism is quite intentional, some forms of plagiarism are technical, and others are innocent usage, where the person responsible is simply unaware of the existence of other works.
This form occurs when sources are used but not cited. There are real grounds for complaint on the part of the owners of the materials, but in many cases the offenders have simply failed to cite their sources. In one recent case, an American historian, working with masses of paper sources, didn't attribute materials. This is more common than generally realized, and working with paper in large volumes makes it easier to do.
There was no intent to omit the sources, it occurred in production. It is still, in fact, illegal, and a breach of intellectual property rights, but as you can see, falls far short of intentional plagiarism.
The onus is on the user of materials to provide proper citation of sources in all cases, and there are no real legal excuses. The copyright owner may accept the explanation, or not.
This is rare, particularly on the net, but it does occasionally occur. It relates to plagiarism of ideas, rather than the indefensible verbatim plagiarism.
The normal scenario is that Owner A discovers Owner B's later work, which is unmistakably similar. Owner B, who hadn't known of Owner A, or their work, says that while there are broad similarities in form, there was no intention to plagiarize, and usually adds that they don't think they have in fact plagiarized the work.
There are real problems here. Owner A is holding the cards, because of prior publication.
These are the issues:
- Owner A has to be convinced there was no intention to plagiarize. That isn't easy to do, particularly with copyright owners who may have had to deal with multiple cases of intentional plagiarism in their careers.
- Owner A also has to be convinced that no harm to their interests has been done, and that their copyright isn't affected by the existence of a similar work, which might undermine their ownership of the ideas.
- Owner B, if admitting any liability, loses their own copyright, and a commercial product, and their reputation.
- Other interests include their publishers, and anyone to whom they've sold materials.
The stage, therefore, is set for a fight, if Owner A won't accept the innocence of Owner B.
- Innocence of intent is not a defence, in terms of plagiarism.
- Any use, sale, copying, or distribution of materials is subject to copyright laws. If done improperly, it's illegal.
- Copyright owners are under no obligation to even consider claims of innocence. They may do so, but it's uncommon.
- The law doesn't make any distinctions between intentional and unintentional plagiarism.
- Having third parties like publishers involved adds their interests to the mix.
The realities of plagiarism in media and academic environments
Plagiarism receives less than Zero Tolerance in all media. Any case of plagiarism can create massive legal liabilities. Publishers in print and on the internet are extremely sensitive to any form of plagiarism. There are almost endless citations on sites like Elance.com and Craigslist concerning non-plagiarism, use of Copyscape as a check on materials provided, and other prohibitions on plagiarism. In all media, paranoia, as well as very real chronic cut and paste abuse of copyright, on the net and elsewhere, is the global culture.
Accusations of plagiarism are almost as common in media as the plagiarism itself. Content producers, like writers, graphic artists, and most other forms of media production, have a vested interest in stamping out plagiarism. It takes income from them, and it reduces their markets for their work.
Plagiarists are despised, actually hated, by content producers. For most people in media, getting published and getting paid are the result of sheer hard work and perseverance. People who struggle for years for recognition for their work aren't inclined to be understanding of those who simply steal it from them, and get paid for it.
The media is at best a very unforgiving place to do business. This makes for a particularly nasty, hyper reactive environment in which to work, even if you're not a plagiarist. The reaction to suspected plagiarism can be extreme, truly over the top. So proven plagiarism results in a literal orgy of retaliation.
Arguably, more time and effort is used fighting plagiarism than actual production, in some fields. The internet, for example, is the breeding ground of plagiarism:
Basic internet plagiarism
The usual methodology is that material is stolen and on-sold in its cut and paste form to a third party, who in many cases adapts it and re-sells it many times over.
In some cases, the plagiarism is based on commissioned original work:
The classic case of syndicated plagiarism is the famous Essay Scam, started by Eastern European criminals in the early 2000s. This scam has sold millions of dollars' worth of plagiarized materials to college students, and robbed the original authors of their work. The scam works in stages:
- A writer is hired to do technical writing for college essays for an internet company, often in the UK. Writers are supposed to do all the research themselves, and the hiring party pays them for one article.
- In practice, the essay is then on-sold thousands of times, and the writers in many cases just don't get paid. One American writer estimated she was owed $32,000 for her work, on time alone. It's an enormous amount of work, for no result but theft.
- The internet company turns out to be a web page, and the real operators are really somewhere like Rumania.
- Law enforcement, understandably, can't do much about these ephemeral sites, although they do try.
- College students, if found to be trying to hand in work which has been recycled all over the planet, are left out of pocket, and out of consideration for a degree, too, in some cases. It's academic suicide, as we'll see later.
It should be noted that in many cases plagiarized materials are on-sold to unsuspecting third parties, even now the scam is well known.
This is one of many reasons the global media are extremely sensitive to plagiarism on principle, as well as in practice. It's very easy to make anything into a commercial product, in this environment.
If at this point the countermeasures sound pretty ineffective, they have severe effects on the industries. Content producers, publishers, and production companies will sue at the mere mention of the word plagiarism. Reputations are often needlessly destroyed, contaminated by the cultural stigma.
Litigation is rife. Even disproving plagiarism is potentially expensive, and the earnings of a career can be compromised overnight. A more efficient, and much cheaper, method of dealing with these cases would be mediation, but with often millions of dollars' worth of intellectual property involved, the tendency is to shoot first.
Any prior conviction for plagiarism is usually fatal to the plagiarists. They will be rejected out of hand, even for their original work. So for the sake of making a few dollars out of a cut and paste job, they lose a career. In many cases they lose all their professional friends and contacts, too.
A more apt description of plagiarism in the academic arena would be Unforgivable. In many cases, the results of years of research are uplifted and sold. In this area, where plagiarism is discovered, there will be massive retaliation, by either the owner of the works, the college or institution, their publishers, or all three as a group.
Scientific plagiarism receives ferocious reactions, including publication of scientific frauds and plagiarism. That can destroy a scientific career entirely.
The academic area may not be as obviously rabid in its persecution of plagiarism, but it makes up for that with its relative efficiency. Academic plagiarism is real professional suicide. Patent owners, researchers, corporate interests, and in some cases interest groups in a profession will group together and pool resources, and they can usually hit their targets effectively.
Plagiarism is a useless thing. It contributes nothing to anything. It's considered by many to be the ultimate proof of lack of talent in any profession. It is never forgiven, or forgotten.
Don't Do It.