Plagiarism vs Copyright Infringement - The Thin Line

With the absolute explosion of digital content (both production and consumption), plagiarism and copyright infringement have become increasingly intertwined and important. Although they’re often used interchangeably, plagiarism and copyright infringement actually represent two different facets of intellectual property rights.

With the absolute explosion of digital content (both production and consumption), plagiarism and copyright infringement have become increasingly intertwined and important. Although they’re often used interchangeably, plagiarism and copyright infringement actually represent two different facets of intellectual property rights. Let’s take a closer look at how they work, their differences, and what the implications are for breaking them in the digital era. 

What is Plagiarism?

At its core, plagiarism is when one person uses another person’s work, expressions or ideas without acknowledging them as the original creator. In short, it involves presenting someone else’s work as your own, and although it’s not necessarily illegal, plagiarism is heavily frowned upon academically and professionally. At its most severe, plagiarism can result in academic penalties or expulsion, job termination and damage to your professional reputation. 

What is Copyright Infringement?

Although plagiarism is not illegal, copyright infringement is, and involves using copyrighted works without the permission of the owner. To muddy the waters even more, copyright laws can vary from country to country, but all of them have the underlying thread in common of protecting a creator’s original work while giving them the exclusive ability to display, reproduce, perform or distribute their work or create derivative works from it. 

As a result, if someone uses this work without the author or creator’s permission, it can result in legal action and penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment. 

With that being said, there’s a lot of confusion between the two terms. When is something considered plagiarism and when is it copyright infringement? Let’s break it down into simpler terms.

Understanding the Differences between Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Legality is one of the main differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Plagiarism is more of an ethics violation and it may not lead to legal issues unless copyright infringement is also involved. Conversely, copyright infringement is a legal violation and can result in severe penalties ranging from monetary damages to jail time. 

Beyond the repercussions, plagiarism and copyright infringement vary in context. Plagiarism is context-sensitive, meaning that an institution or industry can have different definitions as to what actually constitutes plagiarism (however, in most cases, to help prevent dishonesty, these definitions are broadly strict), whereas copyright infringement is universally recognized under the law and both the context and situation in which it occurred are irrelevant. 

Although there are significant differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement, there are still areas where the two intersect. For example, if someone copies a copyrighted work and passes it off as their own without crediting the original author, they’ve committed both copyright infringement and plagiarism. 

Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement in the Digital Age

The rise of the internet, social media and the digital age has added a whole new layer of uncertainty to plagiarism and copyright infringement. For example, are memes considered copyright infringement? What about sharing a post on social media, would that be considered plagiarism if you didn’t credit the original creator?

With the interconnectedness of things and the speed at which content is created and shared, the democratization of access to knowledge has given us all unprecedented access to learn and grow. At the same time, with all of this knowledge at our fingertips, there’s also the propensity to copy, share, remix, update and republish, making it even more difficult to understand what’s copyright infringement, what’s plagiarism and what’s not. 

There are quite a few digital developments that have made understanding and defining these things even more murky, including: 

Ease of Access and Sharing Content

Blogs, forums, social media and academic websites have made it easier than ever to view, share, access and distribute content. But where do we draw the line between personal use, sharing and theft? Misunderstandings can cause both intentional and unintentional violations. 

A Culture of Copying and Pasting

Being able to simply copy and paste a file or text has contributed significantly to the rise in plagiarism. And it’s not just text that’s being copied: music, video, images and much more are all being shared, remixed and reused without proper attribution or an understanding of copyright. 

Ease of Downloading and Distributing Content

There are countless websites out there that host or link to pirated content, including peer to peer sharing networks and unauthorized media distribution platforms. These sites have made it easy to download and distribute content without permission.

Modifying Existing Content

Digital formats are ripe for modification and this type of behavior is especially promoted and encouraged on social networks. Whether that means remixing a song or editing an image or simply tweaking software code to do something new, these actions can infringe on the rights of the product’s original creator. 

Gray Areas: Streaming, Memes and Social Media Sharing

With the ease of editing, downloading and distributing digital content, plagiarism and copyright infringement have crossed into a gray area, particularly when it comes to streaming, memes and social media. If someone creates a meme with a copyrighted image, does that violate the creator’s rights? What about watching a movie via an unauthorized distribution platform or streaming a game with plugins and add-ons enabled that aren’t part of the original code?

These are all good questions, with answers that are anything but clear. Sometimes it’s considered fair use, other times not. There is no clear-cut answer and the answers that exist are often debated among lawyers and legal scholars. 

The Bright Side: Better Detection and Management Systems

The good news is that with the advent of digital technology and the rise and adoption of social media and AI, there’s also a bright side to all this ease of access and ease of use. New technologies and advancements have been launched to help not only detect these instances of infringement and plagiarism but also make it easier for authors, artists, musicians and other creators to protect their content and their rights. 

These methods include: 

Plagiarism and AI Writing Detectors

Plagiarism detection tools like Turnitin and Grammarly, and AI detection tools like Originality.AI have quickly become staples in both academic and professional settings. In the case of plagiarism detection, leveraging vast databases of academic essays, scientific reports and websites makes it easier than ever to detect instances of plagiarism (even when not a word for word copy). 

Meanwhile, AI detection services like Originality.AI have focused on both plagiarism detection as well as AI writing detection to uncover the tell-tale signs of AI writing patterns that may be present in an essay or other types of content. 

Digital Rights Management (DRM) Systems

DRM technologies attempt to stop the proliferation of digital media and restrict the ways that consumers can copy and share content they’ve purchased. Although the use of DRM has become controversial for limiting what users can do with the content after they’ve bought it, there’s no doubt that it plays a decisive role in the protection of copyright in this day and age. 

Content ID Systems

YouTube uses a unique “Content ID” to manage and administer copyrighted material. It works by scanning uploaded videos against a massive database of files that contain copyrighted content. Whenever a match is found, the original content creator is notified so that they can decide whether to monetize, block or track the video. 

National and International Cooperation

There are also national and international laws in place as well as new and forthcoming agreements on addressing online infringement. For example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the U.S. allows copyright holders to issue a “Takedown Notice” on their material to prevent it from being shared or accessed outside of the platforms they’ve agreed to share it on (such as Amazon or another third party website). 

Check Your Work for Plagiarism with Originality.AI

There’s no doubt that with the rise of the internet, social media, TikTok, Instagram and other networks, the lines between plagiarism and copyright become even thinner and more blurred. However, as a content creator, you can take steps today to protect your work or the work of the writers on your team. Check your content for plagiarism and AI writing with Originality.AI for as low as 1 cent per 100 words and protect yourself against instances of plagiarism or potential copyright infringement.

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 Originality.AI to help businesses and publishers get the best returns from their Content.

More From The Blog

AI Content Detector & Plagiarism Checker for Serious Content Publishers

Improve your content quality by accurately detecting duplicate content and artificially generated text.