The Difference Between Infringement and Plagiarism

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I must.

Don’t steal. Don’t lie.

Writers of all people should know that passing someone else’s words off as your own is Not Done. Yet it happens often, sometimes with spectacularly embarrassing results, even to professionals.

Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price was called into question before it was even released. According to the website Plagiarism Today, “Waldo Jaquith of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VGR), a literary review journal associated with the University of Virginia, noticed similarities between some passages in Anderson’s book and other sources. After putting some passages through Google, he found over a dozen instances where it appears Anderson copied content from Wikipedia as well as other sources.”

plagiarism copyright infringement
Illustration © Adiano • Fotolia

The problem is not just that Anderson believes that everything, even other people’s work, should be free. The problem is that many people believe that things published on Wikipedia and other websites are in the public domain. They are not. Wikipedia’s convoluted copyright policy is right here.

There are two issues in play here, and they are often confused: copyright infringement and plagiarism. Copyright infringement may or may not include plagiarism, and not all plagiarism is copyright infringement.

Infringement is using someone else’s work without permission, and can occur even if you give a proper attribution. For example, if you are writing a book about the 1940s and include the lyrics from the song “White Christmas,” just putting Irving Berlin’s name on it is not enough. Copyright in the U.S. is the life of the author plus 75 years, so the song will be under copyright until 2064 (Berlin died in 1989). To use the lyric, you would have to write to the copyright holder (which may be the Berlin estate or a publishing company) and request permission. Then your copyright page will say something like this: “White Christmas” © 1942 by Irving Berlin. Used by Permission. All rights reserved. But you have to actually get permission, and you may have to pay a licensing fee.

Plagiarism is pretending someone else’s work is your own. When Anderson copied articles from Wikipedia and pasted them into his manuscript without proper citations, he committed not only infringement but also plagiarism, although he has said the omission of the citations was an oversight. Such theft can occur even if a work is in the public domain. You can’t swipe a poem from an obscure nineteenth-century book, slap your name on it, and pretend it’s yours just because the author’s been dead more than 75 years. It is still deceiving the reader to pretend that you wrote it.

Stealing From Yourself

In another case, Jonah Lehrer wrote a book titled Imagine in which he imagined a little too much by inventing parts of interviews. Not only did he make stuff up (violating the rule about not deceiving your reader), but he also appears to have committed an unusual form of literary theft called self-plagiarism. He recycled articles he had written for periodicals into his book.

Normally, a writer can repurpose his or her own work this way, but it depends on how one’s contract with the periodical is written. When one is on staff for a periodical, any work one does there is “work for hire,” which means that the publisher owns all rights. If I wanted to include any of the opinion columns I wrote during my days at Orlando Business Journal in an anthology, I would need OBJ’s permission. The company owns the rights, because I wrote those columns on company time.

When one works as a freelancer, the publisher may purchase first rights or one-time rights or something else. Freelance writers often sell similar articles to multiple magazines, but when one does so, it’s a courtesy to let the editors know that’s what you are doing. If Periodical A buys first rights, and you try to sell the same article to Periodical B, you can’t also sell them first rights. You must admit that the first rights belong to Periodical A, and sell Periodical B second rights or one-time rights. An editor can request exclusivity, at least for a specified time, and if you don’t wish to grant it you may take your article elsewhere. But if exclusive rights are sold, then they must be honored.

If one reuses a previously published article in a book, it is customary to note it on the copyright page, for example, “Parts of Chapter 3 originally appeared in The Boston Globe.” Books that are compiled from blog posts, such as Carol Fisher Saller’s Moonlight Blogger, usually include a statement on the copyright page to that effect. Likewise, Jeff Gerke’s The Art & Craft of Writing Christian Fiction
contains a mention in the introduction that the book is adapted from a series of writing tips that appeared on one of his websites.

This is all in the name of transparency. Of not deceiving your reader.

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon links above are affiliate links. This means if you click on a link and buy the book, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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