The act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages therefrom, and passing the material off as one's own creation.
Plagiarism is theft of another person's writings or ideas. Generally, it occurs when someone steals expressions from another author's composition and makes them appear to be his own work. Plagiarism is not a legal term; however, it is often used in lawsuits. Courts recognize acts of plagiarism as violations of COPYRIGHT law, specifically as the theft of another person's INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. Because copyright law allows a variety of creative works to be registered as the property of their owners, lawsuits alleging plagiarism can be based on the appropriation of any form of writing, music, and visual images.
Plagiarism can take a broad range of forms. At its simplest and most extreme, plagiarism involves putting one's own name on someoneelse's work; this is commonly seen in schools when a student submits a paper that someone else has written. Schools, colleges, and universities usually have explicit guidelines for reviewing and punishing plagiarism by students and faculty members. In copyright lawsuits, however, allegations of plagiarism are more often based on partial theft. It is not necessary to exactly duplicate another's work in order to infringe a copyright: it is sufficient to take a substantial portion of the copyrighted material. Thus, for example, plagiarism can include copying language or ideas from another novelist, basing a new song in large part on another's musical composition, or copying another artist's drawing or photograph.
Courts and juries have a difficult time determining when unlawful copying has occurred. One thing the plaintiff must show is that the alleged plagiarist had access to the copyrighted work. Such evidence might include a showing that the plaintiff sent the work to the defendant in an attempt to sell it or that the work was publicly available and widely disseminated.
Once access is proven, the plaintiff must show that the alleged plagiarism is based on a substantial similarity between the two works. In Abkco Music, Inc. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd., 722 F.2d 988 (2d Cir 1983), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found "unconscious" infringement by the musician George Harrison, whose song "My Sweet Lord"was, by his own admission, strikingly similar to the plaintiff's song, "He's So Fine." Establishing a substantial similarity can be quite difficult as it is essentially a subjective process.
Not every unauthorized taking of another's work constitutes plagiarism. Exceptions are made under copyright law for so-called fair use, as in the case of quoting a limited portion of a published work or mimicking it closely for purposes of PARODY and satire. Furthermore, similarity alone is not proof of plagiarism. Courts recognize that similar creative inspiration may occur simultaneously in two or more people. In Hollywood, for example, where well-established conventions govern filmmaking, this conventionality often leads to similar work. As early as 1942, in O'Rourke v. RKO Radio Pictures, 44 F. Supp. 480, the Massachusetts District Court ruled against a screenwriter who alleged that a movie studio had stolen parts of his unproduced screenplay Girls' Reformatory for its film Condemned Women. The court noted that the similar plot details in both stories—prison riots, escapes, and love affairs between inmates and officials—might easily be coincidental.
Sometimes the question is one of proper attribution. In January 2002, two highly regarded historians, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, were accused of plagiarism in The Weekly Standard. The magazine revealed that Ambrose (who died in October 2002) took passages from another author's work and used them in his 2001 book The Wild Blue, while Goodwin used passages from several authors in her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Both authors apologized, acknowledging that they had erred and adding that their failure to provide proper attribution was completely inadvertent. Goodwin went so far as to address her mistakes in an essay in Time magazine. They agreed to correct the problem in future editions of the books in question. While some of their colleagues accepted the explanation, others questioned whether authors of such talent and prominence were in fact being disingenuous considering that both had borrowed numerous passages, not just one or two.
The INTERNET has added a new layer to the question of plagiarism, particularly among high school and college students. In the mid-1990s a number of Web sites cropped up that offered term papers, thesis papers, and dissertations for sale. These "paper mills" make it easy for students to purchase papers instead of writing their own. (The fact that many of the papers being sold are poorly written and minimally researched is apparently of little concern.) A similarly egregious problem results from the wide array of legitimate reports many Web sites make available on the Internet for research purposes. Unscrupulous students with a computer can easily copy large blocks of these reports and paste them into their own papers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while the ease of copying information has not led to a dramatic increase in plagiarism among honest students, those who have already cheated are likely to make frequent use of electronic resources to continue cheating. Students who use the "copy-and-paste" writing method are being thwarted by instructors who simply type questionable phrases into search engines; if the passage exists in another paper, the search engine will probably find it.
Keyt, Aaron. 1988. "An Improved Framework for Music Plagiarism Litigation." California Law Review 76 (March).
Lewis, Mark. 2002. "Doris Kearns Goodwin and the Credibility Gap." Forbes (February 27).
Mayfield, Kendra. 2001. "Cheating's Never Been Easier." Wired (September 4).