Plagiarism vs. Copyright Handout

While plagiarism occurs when a person uses another's words, ideas, or data and presents them as his or her own, copyright infringement occurs when a person obtains, uses, modifies, disseminates, or reproduces a copyrighted work without consent of the copyright owner. Ideas can be plagiarised, but they cannot be copyrighted. Works, of course, can be both plagiarised and copyrighted.


Plagiarism is a very serious academic offense that occurs when a writer or speaker uses the words or ideas of another person and presents them as his or her own. You can plagiarise unintentionally by taking sloppy notes and accidentally putting in a paraphrase that is really a direct quote. Plagiarism by extreme, yet frighteningly common means occurs when students pay others to write papers for them and pass them off as their own. As a graduate student, you are expected to adhere to the greatest degree of academic integrity in your work, and it would be a shame to let sloppiness cause your colleagues and professors to question that integrity. Therefore it is crucial that you practice proper citation and documentation, and of course that you never cheat yourself by plagiarising intentionally.

The following acts constitute Plagiarism:

For more information and examples of plagiarism cases, see Resources to Help You Avoid Plagiarism.


Copyright infringement is an issue that you likely never had to think about as an undergraduate. There are several reasons for that, among them that undergraduate work is almost never published and is rarely submitted beyond the scope of a single class, thereby falling under "Fair Use." Now, things are different. You are no longer just a college student, but a member of the scholarly community, and therefore you must consider copyright law when conducting scholarship, just as many professionals do. Moreover, your thesis or project will be considered a published work, and the ramifications of copyright infringement are considerably greater for such. Copyright infringement is punishable by law, and can result in extremely hefty fines (think about those FBI warnings at the beginning of DVD's) as well as damage to your reputation as a scholar.

Here are a few examples of actions that could be considered copyright infringement:

As you can probably tell from these examples, copyright law can be very confusing and complex, especially in the age of the internet, where creators can be publishers, and users can be distributors of information. It can also be extremely difficult to tell exactly who the copyright owner is in some instances. The U.S. Copyright Office site,, provides information on current laws. The most important thing you can do is to be conscientious about how you are using other people's creations, and understand that copyright regulations may come into play.