Several instances involving plagiarism have come to light recently and have been a popular topic for discussion among those interested in publishing, online and off. The Washington Post brought to light the fact that there is much “borrowed” material without attribution in Jane Goodall’s new book Seeds of Hope. Some other publications covering this topic are Plagiarism Today, The Christian Science Monitor, MSN, The Daily Beast, The LA Times, and The Huffington Post.
Goodall is only one name on a growing list of names of writers finding themselves in the limelight for copying and publishing without attribution. Doris Kearnes Goodwin, a well-known historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, is on that list. A few others on the list are Jason Blair, a New York Times reporter, Jonathan Lehrer, a reporter for the New Yorker, and the author Alex Haley.
What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is using the material created by others without giving attribution. The taking of either the creator’s ideas or the author’s unique way of expressing them without crediting the author may be plagiarism. Even when a work is in the public domain, using it without giving credit to its creator can be considered plagiarism.
Just to clearly distinguish between copyright infringement and plagiarism, using a copyrighted work without permission, even with attribution, can be considered copyright infringement. Copyright infringement is the taking of another’s copyrighted work without permission. Plagiarism is using another’s work without attribution. Someone who copies and publishes another’s work may be guilty of both plagiarism and copyright infringement.
The question for today, however, is not about infringing copyright. It is, How can we as self-publishers prevent claims of plagiarism being made against us?
It seems it may not be that difficult to fall into the trap of what we might consider innocent borrowing. As authors compiling material during research, we sometimes make notes, copying a unique and creative phrase or two, a paragraph, or even a page or more. And, forgetting down the road that this content belongs to another, we may incorporate ideas and words we have gleaned from it into our work, mixing what is theirs with what is ours in our blogs, ebooks, and print works.
Even Samuel Clemens was guilty of such an act of plagiarism and found himself publically apologizing for using the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes as his own.
The best way to avoid unconscious plagiarism is to get into the habit of recording all sourcing information about material we are considering using in our work. A good practice when researching print works is to make a copy of the copyright page and the page(s) containing the material we are thinking about using. If we locate content on an online source and wish to use that content in the future, we should copy that online source’s home page and the webpage containing the content and record the URLs in a file, making sure to include both the complete URL and the date we viewed the content. When we get ready to use the material, we can easily tell what material is not ours, and we will have the credit for our source at our fingertips.
Misconception Regarding Internet Content
As authors of books and as bloggers and newsletter writers, we are hungry for content. We may read another’s blog and decide to incorporate a bit from theirs into ours. There is the incorrect idea that anything on the Internet is free for the taking and credit is not mandatory or even expected.
The Cooks Source controversy offers a good example of that kind of incorrect thinking. Below is a description from our book Copyright Clearance for Creatives of this instance of plagiarism and an account of where it led.
Cooks Source Controversy
In 2010 Monica Gaudio wrote an article on the medieval origins of apple pie and published it on her website. Later, a friend wrote to congratulate her on having it published in a regional magazine titled Cooks Source. It was published in both the online and print version of the magazine. Gaudio complained to Cooks Source that her article was published without her permission. In an answer to her complaint about the infringement, she said, the magazine sent her an email telling her that what is on the Internet is public domain and that she should be happy with the magazine for cleaning up her mistakes. There was a hue and cry on the Internet as bloggers and news sources shared the information about the Cooks Source controversy. The magazine eventually took down its Facebook page and suffered much bad publicity from this incident. (Note: hyperlinks added)
Writers sometimes tell themselves that ideas presented by others are really not new. That they are generally known and accepted may be true, and, in that case, taking the ideas and using them without crediting the source in question may be acceptable. But it is likely that the creator’s unique way of expressing those generally accepted ideas would be seen in a court of law as valuable property owned by the creator. Using the exact expression of those ideas without acquiring permission could be risky.
If writers want to “lift” a comment or two from another’s blog and feel their use is a fair use, it is usually wise and ethical to appropriately quote it and give credit. Even ideas may be plagiarized. If we find a unique approach to a topic in another’s work and wish to speak to that approach, we should give the original creator credit in the text of our work.
It is always a good idea for creatives to take steps to avoid carelessly using the works of others as if they are our own. Taking such precautions may help us avoid embarrassment in the future or, in some cases, actually save our reputations.
A reader of this blog recently suggested that we discuss tools that can be used to detect instances of plagiarism. She suggested a blog by Adam Warner in which he reviews free online plagiarism checkers. Our own recent experience in assisting a relative with freshman college English essays drove home the point when we discovered that his assignments were being reviewed by a plagiarism checker tool. Another blogger whom we follow, Johnathan Bailey, wrote a very informative blog titled “Comparing the Top Plagiarism Detection Tools” a couple of years ago that describes a research study that compares various detection tools.
Want More About Copyright Law?
Order your copy of Copyright Clearance for Creatives for a basic overview of copyright law and essential guidelines on when, how, and where to get permission to use copyright content in your works.