The Biggest Difference Between Plagiarism And Copyright

4 March 2018

From Plagiarism Today:

[C]opyright is a legal regime that deals with unauthorized copying and sharing of a work while plagiarism is an ethical regime that covers attribution and how appropriately use the work of others.

But, while the ethical vs. legal dichotomy is an important distinction, copyright stills ends up being the most common legal mechanism for enforcing the rules of plagiarism. This creates a great deal of overlap between the two, even if it was never intended.

But that lack of intent becomes very clear when you look at what the two cover. In truth, the overlap between plagiarism and copyright is fairly small, with much of the ground plagiarism covers not just unmentioned in copyright, but intentionally not covered at all.

While the overlap between the two is still very important, it’s overlap because of the way people typically plagiarize, not the concept of plagiarism itself.

. . . .

Plagiarism, at its core, covers a wide variety of things. This includes words, ideas and facts as the major three things but, depending on the medium and the creativity put into them, can include syntax, style and even format.

This is because plagiarism is about attributing both the work and creativity of others who came earlier. Whether it was a scientist who toiled for hours upon hours to perform a study or a poet who had a flash of clarity and creativity, plagiarism is about attributing the contributions of others, whatever they may be.

Copyright, on the other hand, not only doesn’t cover facts, ideas, syntax, etc., it expressly forbids them. This is because copyright vests solely in creativity, not in the effort behind the creation.

A key example of this in the United States is phone books. Though assembling a phone book or phone directory is certainly a difficult and time-consuming task, phone books do not enjoy copyright protection in the United States.

The reason, quite simply is that an alphabetical list of names and numbers doesn’t have the requisite level of creativity to be copyright protected, regardless of the resources and effort that went into compiling it.

While the bar for that creativity is extremely low, “at least a modicum” under the law, it prevents facts and information from being copyright protected at all. Instead, only their expression gets coverage. This is despite the fact that plagiarizing facts and research is a heinous crime in academic circles.

. . . .

At it’s most fundamental level, plagiarism attempts to establish the rules and boundaries of authorship. This makes plagiarism an inherently philosophical exercise as, before we discuss what is or is not a plagiarism, we have to first discuss what is or is not original.

But philosophy is at home with discussions around plagiarism as it’s the mechanism we enforce the standards of authorship and attribution.

Philosophy is much less at home with copyright. Copyright is a legal right that focuses primarily on the commercial aspect of creation and, specifically, creativity. Though this is less true in other countries where moral rights are a bigger part of thee picture, in the U.S. the focus is almost entirely on the commercial rights of the creator or rightsholder.

It’s this focus that marks the biggest difference between the two. Plagiarism deals with ethics and authorship, copyright with commercial rights as a means to encourage creativity.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

The Shape of Water’s Ongoing Plagiarism Battle

8 February 2018

From Plagiarism Today:

Two weeks ago, we took a look at the plagiarism controversy over The Shape of Water, the new film written and directed by Guillermo del Toro.

At the time, the controversy focused on similarities between The Shape of Water and The Space Between Us, a 2015 short film by students at the Netherlands Film Academy.

But, while the similarities were striking, there was no shortage of evidence that del Toro had been working on The Shape of Water as early as 2011, well before The Space Between Us was released.

With so much evidence that The Shape of Water could not have plagiarized the short film, the conversation shifted to exactly why the arguments felt so convincing. In short, the story became a useful example to discuss why some things in filmmaking felt like plagiarism when we knew for certain they could not be.

. . . .

Two days after my original post, the estate of playwright Paul Zindel publicly accused del Toro of plagiarizing Zindel’s 1969 play, Let Me Hear You Whisper.

The two works do have a great deal of overlap. Both stories are set in the sixties and feature a female custodian who befriends and eventually falls in love with a creature held captive in the military laboratory where she works. In both stories she frees the creature (using a shopping cart) in order to save it from vivisection after the creature fails to cooperate with its captors.

While that’s a lot of overlap, there are several key differences too. For one, in Whisper the creature is a dolphin and in Water it’s a humanoid creature. Also, the endings of the two works are drastically different.

. . . .

Fox Searchlight has denied that del Toro read Let Me Hear You Whisper, but there is evidence that Daniel Kraus, who pitched the story idea to del Toro in 2011, was not just aware of Zindel’s work, but an admirer.

This makes it almost certain that Kraus was aware of Let Me Hear You Whisper, even if del Toro was not.

. . . .

Earlier this week, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet accused del Toro of plagiarizing a scene in The Shape of Water from his 1991 film Delicatessen.

Both scenes feature two characters, one male and one female, sitting side by side and creating an impromptu rhythm to the beat of a musical playing on TV. In Delicatessen, the two use squeaks and creaks in a bed they are seated on to make the music while, in The Shape of Water, the two are seated on a sofa using their shoes to tap out the rhythm.

. . . .

However, this is a very different plagiarism allegation than the first one. It doesn’t look at the entire plot of the film and, instead, focuses on less than a minute of both works.

But, while both scenes feature characters making an impromptu rhythm to a musical on the TV, that’s roughly all they have in common. How they make the rhythm, where they’re sitting and the beat they make are all very different.

. . . .

Still, as noted by Sabine Jacques in The Conversation, a copyright infringement case by the estate against del Toro would have some significant challenges. Not only is it unclear if the similarities between the two works are copyrightable or that they are strikingly similar to one another to be considered a derivative work, but del Toro heavily documented the creation of the film and may be able to show it was an independent creation.

. . . .

There’s a terrible and overtly false expression about plagiarism that reads, “To steal from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.”

As obviously untrue as that is (plagiarism deals with citation and not the number of sources) it has a kernel of wisdom when it comes to fiction.

Every trope we have started out as an original idea at some point, even if it was thousands of years ago. However, as other creators used it, built upon it and modified it, it went from being an original idea to being a basic building block of storytelling. However, the transition from original work to trope is not a smooth or clear one. In fact, it’s one that’s different for nearly every person interpreting it.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

What Does it Mean to Be a Plagiarist?

25 September 2017

From Plagiarism Today:

Jayson Blair is a plagiaristPierre DesRuisseaux is a plagiaristFormer U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is also a plagiarist.

These are three very different stories about plagiarism. They are different not only in the plagiarism that was performed, but the role the plagiarism played in their careers and the impact being caught had.

However, in all three cases, and millions more like them, two things are consistent: The label of plagiarist and the eternity with which it is applied.

Because of this, the term “plagiarist” has become something of a strange one. It’s a term that can theoretically be applied to almost anyone, but it’s applied for a lifetime with no modification or qualifiers.

Once you’re a plagiarist, you’re always a plagiarist.

This raises a series of questions: What does it mean to be a plagiarist? Can you be a former plagiarist? Can you be a redeemed plagiarist?

. . . .

Often times, plagiarist is simply a label that you can throw onto someone you don’t like, even if the evidence is flimsy. This works in part because there’s no official agency that determines what is and is not plagiarism. What constitutes plagiarism is often a matter of opinion and it’s very possible for two reasonable people to disagree.

. . . .

It’s easy to see why the term plagiarist carries so much weight, even among non-creatives. Plagiarism represents a major ethical failing. At the heart of plagiarism is a lie, claiming the work of another as your own, and that lie can reflect very poorly on someone’s character.

This is why plagiarist is such a powerful label, even among those with no interest in writing or the arts. When you call someone a plagiarist, you’re accusing them of being a liar.

But while the passion is understandable, the application of the term has raised a lot of problems. When the same term is applied to someone who is weakly accused of plagiarizing once years ago, such as President Obama, and to someone who flagrantly plagiarized dozens of times across their career, such as Jayson Blair, you run into a serious problem.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

PG says it is so easy to write, “As [famous person] once said,” and you’re out of the plagiarism zone without reducing the impact of what you’ve borrowed from someone else on your audience.

Perhaps one of the plagiarist’s flaws is being unwilling to credit others with intelligence/insight/inspiration because the plagiarist is insecure about their own capabilities on those areas.

Eilis O’Hanlon: My tale of a book thief sparked an online frenzy. But what happened next?

11 April 2016


What happened to the money? That was the question which people kept asking after reading how a fellow author clocked up sales worth almost $20,000 in a little over two months last autumn by plagiarising two crime novels that I’d co-written some years earlier.

The story was told in detail in last week’s Life magazine in the Sunday Independent. It explained how I happened to discover, thanks to an eagle-eyed reader called Donna Patel in England, that the first two books my writing partner and I had published as “Ingrid Black” a decade earlier had been lifted and republished on the online bookstore Amazon under new titles, with all names and locations changed to hide the original source.

The plagiarist’s name was “Joanne Clancy”, and she’d received just under $2,000 in royalties by the time her deception was uncovered. (Amazon, being American, calculates everything in dollars). Because Amazon pays the authors of Kindle books every 60 days, that meant there was just over $18,000 still waiting to be paid. So where would it go?

My co-writer and I had been wondering that, too, since discovering just how many copies of our books “Joanne Clancy” had sold.

It wouldn’t go to her, obviously, as she had been exposed as a fraud, but it didn’t seem likely that it would go to us either. Then we discovered, accidentally during the course of a conversation with a representative from Amazon, that the company does actually pay out to the original author of a book if it could be proven that their work has been plagiarised.

. . . .

We were fortunate. We caught “Joanne Clancy” at a vulnerable time. She’d only just discovered that her books were being removed from Amazon and that she was banned for life from publishing her books in the online store, at least under that name. She was also worried about the prospect of legal action, and seemed keen to mollify us.

Had she taken a day or two to think it over, she might well have decided that silence was the best strategy. She certainly vanished off the radar shortly afterwards and ignored all email requests for further information.

. . . .

Legal action is time consuming, expensive, and mentally draining, with no guarantee of success, especially against a shadowy opponent who seemed to exist mainly in cyberspace. Because that was another problem.

The internet is a big place. Many people got into contact to explain how to trace people through their online fingerprints. “Joanne Clancy” had a website, which yielded some further clues, but nothing conclusive. Other authors were able to provide IP addresses from comments left by this “Joanne Clancy” on their pages and blogs.

. . . .

But out of all these thousands of readers, not a single person has contacted me to say that they know this woman, or have ever come across her, in real life. Some are closely involved in the literary community in Cork, which “Clancy” claimed as her home town. They can find no trace of her existence either. She seems to exist only online.

Link to the rest at and thanks to N. for the tip.

Did Dave Eggers ‘Rewrite’ Kate Losse’s Book?

2 October 2013

From The Atlantic Wire:

Kate Losse, the author of last year’s Boy Kings, which outlined the early culture at Facebook from her experiences as employee #51, has accused Dave Eggers of stealing her book idea for his novel The Circle. “Dave Eggers decided to rewrite my book as his own novel about a young woman working her way up through Facebook,” she writes on Medium today. “From all appearances, it is the same book, and I wrote it first (and I imagine mine is more authentic and better written, because I actually lived in this world and am also a good writer),” she adds. Losse, in an email to The Atlantic Wire, admits she has not read his book. “But if you look at the description/plot arc/main character name it is disturbingly similar,” she said.

Both books center around the the life of a woman working at a tech company. Losse’s book is about her experience at Facebook, where she worked for five years; Eggers’s is about the fictional experiences of Mae Holland, who works for a fictional tech company called The Circle, which The Wall Street Journal’s Dennis K. Berman describes as a “mashup of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and PayPal.” The names aren’t exactly the same, but Losse argues: “If you say ‘Mae Holland; out loud it sounds like the same phonetic structure as my name,” she told The Atlantic Wire. “Just similar enough to echo my name without using the same letters.”

Link to the rest at The Atlantic Wire

We had a recent post about another instance of claimed plagiarism, but, for those who may have missed the discussion, here’s a refresher on copyright infringement vs. plagiarism from The University of Connecticut:

Copyright infringement is a violation of the exclusive rights of the copyright holder and may carry legal consequences. Copyright infringement can take many forms. Examples of copyright infringement may include borrowing significant portions of another’s work in the creation of a new work, making and distributing unauthorized copies of a sound recording or video, or publicly performing another’s work without permission from the copyright holder, even if the original work is cited.

The law identifies several exceptions and limitations to copyright that do not constitute infringement.

Plagiarism involves using another’s work without attribution, as if it were one’s own original work. It is considered an ethical offense and can be detrimental to one’s academic reputation and integrity.

It is possible to plagiarize without violating copyright, and it is possible to infringe on another’s copyright without plagiarizing. It is also possible to both plagiarize and violate copyright at the same time.

PG has no knowledge of the contents of either book, so he can’t comment about whether either copyright infringement or plagiarism has occurred. He would note that Ms. Losse told The Atlantic Wire that she had not read the book about which she was complaining.

PG would suggest making public claims implying plagiarism or copyright infringement without having read and carefully analyzed the offending work first is not a good idea.

Plots are not a protected expression. PG seems to remember that Shakespeare borrowed the plot for Romeo and Juliet. The plot of R&J has in turn been borrowed a zillion times since then. Jane Austen’s plots have been used over and over again. Every genre utilizes standard plots and plot devices. It’s the fresh twists on the old formulas that many genre readers appreciate.

Character archetypes are similarly not a protected expression. How many fantasies have old wizards? How many science fiction stories have robots like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation? Nobody makes serious claims that use of these archetypes is plagiarism or copyright infringement.

Absent a trademark, character names are not protected.

“For the Summer” Plagiarized?

24 September 2013

From Dear Author:

I had put the news piece to bed when my inbox blew up with links to a Goodreads review of Shey Stahl’s For the Summer. In the DNF review (rated one star), the reader details eight instances of similarities including exact verbiage and scene blocking to a highly beloved Twilight fan fiction called Dusty written by Sarah and Mary Elizabeth.

. . . .

As for Stahl, she vehemently denies any plagiarism and her fans are out in full force. (The fan fiction authors have stated that they have been blocked by Stahl and that she has messaged them and claimed she never read their fiction and that her work is her own)  Fans of Stahl accused the Goodreads reader of trying to ruin Stahl’s career and have demanded “Legal Proof”.  On her facebook page, people are suggesting that the real way to handle this sort of thing is to take it to a court of law.

. . . .

In this instance with Stahl maintaining her innocence, it is possible it won’t be taken down until legal action does occur.  For the fan fiction authors, given that their work is not registered with the US Copyright office, they’d only be entitled to whatever the text has earned so far.  If they had registered the copyright, they would be entitled to treble damages.

It’s probably time for Amazon to contract with TurnItIn and require all self pub manuscripts be run through a plagiarism checker.  As for Stahl, I don’t doubt the fan fiction group is combing through her every work now. I feel for her fans. I saw one blogger post a facebook update which pretty much indicated she was devastated.

Link to the rest at Dear Author and thanks to Randall for the tip.

To be clear, PG hasn’t reviewed any of the works involved and, consequently, has no opinion concerning the plagiarism claims that have been made.

A couple of points, however:

1. In an internet age, you’re a dope if you plagiarize. It is simply too easy for plagiarism to be detected with electronic works. And social media will spread plagiarism claims like wildfire.

“For the Summer” no longer shows up on Amazon. PG doesn’t know whether Amazon has taken it down or Ms. Stahl has done so. Amazon does have the ability under its KDP Terms & Conditions to remove all books by an author from sale. Other online bookstores can do the same thing.

2. With regard to the Dear Author recommendation that Amazon run all self pub manuscripts through Turnitin, here’s a question – Do commercial publishers run their publications through Turnitin or otherwise routinely perform any checks for plagiarism prior to publication? Commercial publishers have published plagiarized works. See Kaavya Viswanathan for just one example.

It would be difficult for a successful claim for copyright infringement and damages arising from a plagiarized work to be made against Amazon for listing an indie book for sale since Amazon isn’t the publisher and would undoubtedly assert the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as a defense. That would not be the case with a traditional publisher who published a plagiarized work.

In either case, however, both Amazon and the publisher of a plagiarized work would, in turn, be suing the author for any damages or attorneys fees they incurred. Another good reason not to plagiarize.

For more on plagiarism detection tools, go to Plagiarism Today