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Avoid Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Copyright Law

In our writing, two things that are obviously to be avoided are plagiarism and copyright infringement. Although plagiarism and copyright infringement are similar in that you are taking someone else's work, copying it verbatim, stating or implying that it's your work, and possibly profiting from it, there is a subtle difference between the two.

Copyright law goes back to the founding fathers who, in order "to promote the progress of science and useful arts" in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, secured for authors, artists and inventors the exclusive right to their work. The length of time of this protection has been extended over the years, and currently an authors work is protected until 50 years after their death.

Copyright infringement is a very serious business. If you use else's work without their permission, they can sue you for any profits that you received from the illegal use of their work, and any damages that your illegal use caused, along with court costs. Even if you didn't make any profit from the illegal use of their work, they can sue you, for example, for damage caused to their reputation for claiming their words where yours.

However, the copyright law does not prohibit any and all use of someone else's work. The copyright law provides a "fair use" exception that permits you to legally use copyrighted material for certain purposes. You can legally use copyrighted music, pictures, and textual information for purposes such as critical review, news reporting, teaching or training materials, or a research report. This type of use is not a copyright infringement.

Unfortunately, copyright law does not precisely define fair use. Determination of whether a use is fair use is made on a case-by-case basis, depending upon the purpose and character of that use. Fair use is clear if the material is used for a parody or satire, or for non-profit educational purposes. It also depends upon the portion used in relation to the material as a whole.

For example using an excerpt from a book or other material is fair use if you use only a small portion of the work for the excerpt, and if you identify the source of the excerpt. But be careful, even though the part you use may be only a small portion of the material, if it's the heart of the work, that would be infringement. Make sure that the part of the work you use does not make your new work substitutable for the copyrighted work. If so, that is an infringement because it has reduced the marketability of the copyrighted work.


Plagiarism is a somewhat less serious violation than copyright infringement. Plagiarism is when, in an academic environment, you use another person's work without giving the appropriate credit or acknowledgment to the author. Of course in many cases plagiarism can constitute copyright infringement, but in most cases it's considered a breach of ethics and can result in sanctions like expulsion.

Actually, the victims of plagiarism aren't asking for much, just that they be given the appropriate credit. In fact acknowledging the author of any material that you use that is not your own is also usually a good way to also avoid copyright infringement. The easiest way to give attribution is to simply enclose the excerpt in quotation marks, followed by a dash, followed by the name of the author and the source of publication.

In a formal research report, where a large number of excerpts are used, where placing each author's name and source of publication would detract from the flow of the document, you can follow each excerpt with a number in parenthesis, and then place footnotes at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the report.

Using Pictures of People

Using pictures of people can be a dangerous prospect. You cannot use a person's name, picture, or voice for commercial benefit without obtaining their permission. Never position a person's name or picture on a web page in a way that implies that they endorse a product or service without their permission. Never position a person's name or picture in proximity to information with a negative connotation. For example, if you position a person's picture just above a story about homosexuality, you might be sued for character defamation.

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