Famous Cases of Plagiarism - Lessons to Learn

Plagiarism Shocking Examples! From history to AI, learn from these infamous cases and avoid it yourself.

Plagiarism is often viewed as something that’s “not a problem unless you get caught”. But with the advent of digital technology and now AI, the prevalence of plagiarism is greater than ever. It also sometimes creates fierce debates on originality, ethics and the delicate line between being inspired by someone’s work and outright stealing it. 

Given how accessible information is today, plagiarism has been thrust into the spotlight once again, forcing us to answer some very important questions like: Is it still plagiarism if an AI writes it? Or, can you plagiarize yourself? These are important questions that have no simple answer. But in order to try to shed some light on the problem, it’s helpful to look at examples of plagiarism throughout history and across different types of media.

Some of the examples of plagiarism you’re about to see are surprising. Some are shocking. But all of them fall under the very large umbrella of plagiarism. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest plagiarism examples and what the repercussions were, as well as how to avoid it yourself. 

What Exactly is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is using someone else’s work or ideas without properly citing or attributing the work to them. It can span many different types of materials including text, music, images and even in some cases, ideas. Plagiarism is unethical and comes with serious consequences or even legal penalties across every major field including professional, journalistic and academic. 

Plagiarism itself can come in different forms. Most people are familiar with direct plagiarism, which is copying someone else’s work verbatim without citing them or giving them credit for it. However there are other types of plagiarism that can seem to “fly under the radar”, like mosaic plagiarism, where someone takes phrases or ideas from someone else’s work without giving credit, or paraphrasing plagiarism, where the author writes someone else’s ideas using different words (and again, without proper attribution). 

That being said, some instances of plagiarism are easy to prove and others are quite difficult. Read on for some surprising examples and decide for yourself, is it really plagiarism? 

Historical Examples of Plagiarism in Literature

Since man began carving stories into stone, there have likely been accusations of plagiarism. One of the more famous examples happened to well-known author and activist Hellen Keller. Keller, who became blind and deaf while still a baby, wrote a story when she was 12 years old entitled “The Frost King”. 

Later, it was discovered that her story strongly resembled a similar story by Margaret Canby’s “The Frost Fairies”. Keller insisted she had no conscious memory of ever reading Canby’s story but concedes that maybe it was read to her when she was younger and somehow she retained pieces of the plot in the back of her mind. 

Another example came from Alex Haley’s “Roots” published in 1976. Haley was accused of plagiarism by a man named Harold Courlander, who wrote a novel entitled “The African”. A court examined the two works and determined that the similarities between them were more than just a coincidence. Eventually Haley settled with Courlander, all the while insisting that “Roots” was his own, original creation. 

We’ve all heard countless stories throughout our lives. And it’s entirely possible that some of those plots and even character types could seep into our subconscious. How do you know if it’s truly yours or something you heard years or even decades ago? How do you prove it? 

Plagiarism in Academia

One of the more famous examples of plagiarism in academia involves Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. In 1987 she published a book entitled “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga”. Years passed and in 2002, it was discovered that she had lifted passages from numerous other works and included them without citing the original articles. 

When she was asked, she insisted that it was unintentional and blamed her disorganized note-taking process. She claims to have accidentally mixed her own notes with the notes of other authors. Goodwin and her publisher eventually settled with at least one of the authors who had accused her of plagiarism. She then went on to correctly cite the authors and republish her work with proper attributions. 

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid plagiarism now while keeping notes and sources organized, so combing through a disheveled stack of papers can be a thing of the past! 

Plagiarism in Music and Art

The music world is rife with accusations of plagiarism in music. Everything from beats to lyrics to entire songs has been the subject of controversy and lawsuits citing plagiarism and copyright infringement. One of the more notorious cases involved George Harrison of the Beatles and his song My Sweet Lord. He was challenged in court by Bright Tunes Music, the publisher of “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. “My Sweet Lord” was released in 1970, whereas “He’s So Fine” was written by Ronnie Mack for the Chiffons in 1963. 

Can you hear the similarities? You might be surprised to learn that Harrison was found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” because he believed he had unintentionally copied the melody. Later, he acquired the rights to the song and ended up buying the very music he was accused of plagiarizing. 

In the art world, a notable example of plagiarism involved the famous HOPE poster of Barack Obama. This poster was used throughout his campaign, however, Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the poster, was challenged by the Associated Press for using a photo of Obama taken by Mannie Garcia. At first Fairey maintained that he had used a different photo and claimed fair use, however it was later shown that he did indeed use the AP photograph. The case was settled in 2011 with a split of the profits from the HOPE poster. 

Can using someone’s likeness from a photograph to create an artistic poster be considered fair use? What do you think? 

Notorious Plagiarism Scandals in Journalism

Back in 2003, journalist Jayson Blair of the New York Times was discovered to have lied about and plagiarized parts of his stories ranging from national events to human interest stories. He had run the gamut from stealing content from other newspapers to lying about where he was during certain assignments. 

His plagiarism caused such an upheaval at the New York Times that top editors resigned and a spotlight was shone firmly on editorial oversight as well as the ethics in journalism. 

Even more egregious was Stephen Glass and his work as a reporter for the New Republic.. He even went so far to include fake websites, voicemails and notes to corroborate his stories, even though he fabricated them all. His plagiarism was discovered after an investigation by Forbes Digital Tool looked into the background of his story “Hack Heaven” about a teenage hacker. He was later fired and a film made about his fall from grace called “Shattered Glass”. 

Plagiarism in Film and Television

Because of the nature of trying to prove copyright infringement, instances of outright plagiarism in films and television are rarer than, say, music, where one can hear when a melody or beat has clearly been lifted from another song. 

One of the more famous cases of plagiarism in film had to do with the 1988 movie “Coming to America” starring Eddit murphy. Columnist and humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount, claiming that the film was based on a script he had written called “King for a Day” which he had submitted to the studio. Buchwald argued that his script, which detailed the story of a rich, foreign prince moving to the U.S. to find love, bore numerous similarities to the plot of “Coming to America”.  In 1992, the court agreed with Buchwald and he was awarded damages. 

In another more recent case, the Last Samurai, a 2003 film with Tom Cruise, was the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed by Aaron and Matthew Benay who claimed that the story was considerably similar to a screenplay they had written and submitted to a production company in 2000 in which a westerner also immerses himself in samurai culture in Japan. Although the case was initially dismissed in 2005, an appeal led to a ruling in favor of the Benay brothers and the suit was eventually settled out of court under undisclosed terms. 

This type of settlement often happens in cases that deal with intellectual property, especially when there’s a fine line drawn between inspiration and outright plagiarism. Oftentimes copyright laws are determined specifically in each case which can make it difficult to create a “one size fits all” approach to plagiarism in film and movies. Oftentimes Hollywood will settle out of court to avoid ongoing legal battles. 

Plagiarism in the Digital Age

In 2014, Benny Johnson, a viral politics editor at Buzzfeed committed numerous instances of plagiarism. During an internal review it was found that there were over 40 instances where Johnson copied text without attribution. Buzzfeed promptly acknowledged the issue and fired Johnson, highlighting the challenges of maintaining journalistic standards despite the breakneck pace of digital publishing. 

Meanwhile, Jukin Media, a video licensing company, has reported spotting numerous issues where their content was reuploaded and shared on Facebook without proper attribution. With the vast reach and ease of sharing on social media, widespread use of content, including things like reuploads and remixes, can be pervasive. Rather than tying this unauthorized use to a specific court case, Jukin Media normally reports copyright infringement through the offending platform’s channels to get the content removed or to get correct attribution added. 

What Can You Learn from These Plagiarism Examples?

Having all of these different examples of plagiarism across literature, academia, art, journalism, music and even the web showcase the very real and ongoing challenge of maintaining integrity and originality in an age where instant access to information is always available. From historical cases involving well-known authors and musicians to modern-day scandals, plagiarism is not a simple question with a simple answer.

At the heart, plagiarism is a violation of intellectual property rights which in turn ripples out to deteriorate trust and respect that are needed as the foundation for an ongoing exchange of ideas. The cases shown here demonstrate not only how easy it is to fall into the trap of using others’ work without citing it, but just how easy it is to do by pure oversight, accident or even malicious intent. And the consequences can pile up quickly: legal battles, scandal, resignation and even financial  costs can add up quickly. 

But these plagiarism examples are presented here as more than just a way to draw attention to famous authors, singers and screenwriters. The examples show just how our understanding of copyright and intellectual property has to evolve over time. With online platforms, the ability to consume and share content has exploded. Alongside this development, new mechanisms, particularly AI, have to be tamed in order to be used effectively without undermining human creativity or ingenuity. 

Although with the advent of AI writing detection platforms and plagiarism detectors like Originality.AI, the job is much easier, it is by no means finished. Uncovering plagiarism requires vigilance and a commitment to understanding the value of one’s own original touch and creative mark on the world. By looking at these examples of plagiarism, we can all learn what it means to draw inspiration from a work versus copy it outright. 

No matter what the future holds, we must continue to create environments where creativity and ingenuity can flourish, backed by trust in the foundations that bring us information, entertainment and education. By taking care of the rights of all creators, we help create a society and culture that’s focused on originality at its core. 

If you’re looking to help prevent plagiarism in text or AI written content, try Originality.AI today. With built-in content tools like a comprehensive plagiarism checker, fact checker, readability tool and more, there’s no better way to publish with integrity.

Sherice Jacob

Plagiarism Expert Sherice Jacob brings over 20 years of experience to digital marketing as a copywriter and content creator. With a finger on the pulse of AI and its developments, she works extensively with to help businesses and publishers get the best returns from their Content.

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