Wednesday, March 07, 2012

On Plagiarism and What It Really Means

Anyone reading the National Post this morning might be puzzled as to whether “some of the top” copyright lawyers in Canada actually understand what “plagiarism” really means.

So – here is what it means. Please don’t take my word for it. I’ve copied below (with full attribution)  the definition of “plagiarism” from the full edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and Black’s Law Dictionary.

I’ve underlined and highlighted the key fundamental concept – which is that the copying must be of the work of another person.

One cannot plagiarize oneself.  Since some copyright lawyers are fond of often overwrought property analogies and metaphors, I’m sure that they would agree that one cannot steal one’s own car.

Likewise, if I work on a report or a brief as part of a team and I allow my work to be incorporated into the result, the resulting work is not “plagiarized”. Otherwise, how would one describe a brief from a large law firm that may incorporate the unattributed input of many lawyers and law students?

Oxford English Dictionary

[f. as plagiary + -ism.]

1.       The action or practice of plagiarizing; the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another.

   1621 Bp. R. Montagu Diatribæ 23 Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?    1716 M. Davies Athen. Brit. II. To Rdr. 46 A good Plea to any Charge of Plagiarism or Satyrism.    1753 Johnson Adventurer No. 95 ⁋9 Nothingcan be more unjust than to charge an author with plagiarism merely because hemakes his personages act as others in like circumstances have done.    1820 Hazlitt Lect. Dram. Lit. 257 If an author is once detected in borrowing, he will be suspected of plagiarism ever after.    1861 Buckle Civiliz. II. vi. 542 A certain unity of design which is inconsistent with extensive plagiarism.

2.       A purloined idea, design, passage, or work.

   1797 Monthly Mag. III. 260 He found thesongto be ‘a most flagrant plagiarism from Handel’.    1850 Maurice Mor. & Met. Philos. (ed. 2) I. 98 A Thaumaturgist whom they had createdto convince the world that the Christian church was a plagiarism.    1875 Jowett Plato (ed. 2) I. p. xx, They are full of plagiarisms, inappropriately borrowed.
Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v.
© Oxford University Press 2009
All rights reserved.

Black’s Law Dictionary


plagiarism. (17c) The deliberate and knowing presentation of another person's original ideas or creative expressions as one's own. • Generally, plagiarism is immoral but not illegal. If the expression's creator gives unrestricted permission for its use and the user claims the expression as original, the user commits plagiarism but does not violate copyright laws. If the original expression is copied without permission, the plagiarist may violate copyright laws, even if credit goes to the creator. And if the plagiarism results in material gain, it may be deemed a passing-off activity that violates the Lanham Act. It can also be a criminal act under 17 USCA § 5–6. Cf. INFRINGEMENT. [Cases: Copyrights and Intellectual Property 53(1).] — plagiarize (play-j<>-rIz), vb. — plagiarist (play-j<>-rist), n.
“Plagiarism, which many people commonly think has to do with copyright, is not in fact a legal doctrine. True plagiarism is an ethical, not a legal, offense and is enforceable by academic authorities, not courts. Plagiarism occurs when someone — a hurried student, a neglectful professor, an unscrupulous writer — falsely claims someone else's words, whether copyrighted or not, as his own. Of course, if the plagiarized work is protected by copyright, the unauthorized reproduction is also a copyright infringement.” Paul Goldstein, Copyright's Highway 12 (1994).
“That the supporting evidence for the accusation of plagiarism may on occasion be elusive, insufficient, or uncertain, is not the same as thinking that the definition of plagiarism is uncertain. The gray areas may remain resistant to adjudication without being resistant to definition. It may be perfectly clear what constitutes plagiarism (‘using the work of another with an intent to deceive) without its being clear that what faces us is truly a case of this.” Christopher Ricks, “Plagiarism,” 97 Proceedings of the British Academy 149, 151 (1998).
© 2009 Thomson Reuters
Bryan A. Garner, Editor in Chief

By the way, the incomparable polymath Prof. Tom Lehrer (satirist, musician, who taught math etc. at Harvard, MIT, University of California etc.) knew better than anyone how to expound on a lighter note on the subject of plagiarism. Don't miss the video below. 

(Prof. Tom Lehrer)


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