There is an element of confusion about whether plagiarism and copyright infringement are the same thing. It’s a question we are often asked at Copyright Clearance Center. Unfortunately, our answer is equally confusing: yes, and no. But bear with me, and I’ll try to be a little bit more helpful.
I’ll start with the legal stuff. Copyright infringement is a question for the law. This doesn’t mean it has to be applied by lawyers – non-lawyers are just as entitled to apply it – but it will always be a legal issue. Plagiarism, though it might sound similar, is fundamentally different: it is an ethical issue.
Copyright infringement is a question for the law. Plagiarism is fundamentally different: it is an ethical issue.
Imagine the situation. You have cut and pasted a short paragraph of someone else’s work into your own. You may have received permission from the owner to do so, or your use of the content may be limited enough that the principle of fair use applies. Either way, this is not an example of copyright infringement. Even if you were sued, there would be no basis to make a legal case against you.
However, if you have cut and pasted the same paragraph and presented it as part of one of your school papers, chances are that the teacher will instantly classify it as plagiarism. From a teacher’s perspective, whether or not you have permission is not the issue. These are not your own ideas, they haven’t been given appropriate attribution, and you haven’t distinguished them enough from your own ideas. As a result, your assignment contains plagiarism and is heading for an instant fail.
Traditionally, the two notions of plagiarism and copyright infringement have been associated with one another. If it’s plagiarism, it must be copyright infringement, and vice-versa. However, this is simply not true. A case may not be considered infringement because it has followed a fair use protocol, but may still be classed as plagiarism. On the flipside, a case of clear copyright infringement may not fall into the plagiarism category because attribution has been given.
So, let me try again to answer the question clearly. What is the difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement? The two occupy different spaces that run parallel with one another. The only way to determine whether something constitutes plagiarism or infringement rests on what issue it is you are trying to address.