The Internet has brought the issue of copyright to the forefront like nothing else in history. The ease and speed with which people can share digital information has also made it very easy to commit copyright infringement, intentionally or not. In this guide, we cover copyright, plagarism, and the DMCA with specific references and insights for students.

As a student, you have terabytes of data available literally at your fingertips, which makes project research and paper writing easier than they’ve ever been before.

But it also means you must be more aware of copyright rules in order to avoid violating them.

Before you can successfully avoid committing copyright infringement, you must first understand what copyright is, and how it works.

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Rather than indicating ownership, which is a common misconception, copyright instead provides protection to the creators of, as the U.S. Copyright Office states, “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”

Copyright isn’t provided on the whim of the original author, either — it’s law.

In the United States, copyright law is administered by the U.S. Copyright Office. Other countries have similar counterparts, and while the actual laws and regulations may differ to a degree, the basic premise is the same.

You’re probably already aware that copyright protection is extended to things like books and photographs, but the list doesn’t end there. Other types of work protected by copyright include, but are not limited to: poetry, software, music, plays, songs, novels and other literary works, audio recordings, and even architecture. Copyright does not, however, protect intangibles such as ideas, methods of operation, or systems. In addition, copyright does not protect things that are not attributable to a creator, such as facts.

The exception in those cases is that copyright may protect the method of expression that conveys those things. For example, an idea that is written down, a book of fiction that contains a verifiable fact, or a diagram of a specific method of operation, may all be protected by copyright law.

One of the most important aspects of copyright is that it protects both published and unpublished works. For example, if you write a book but never have it published, and no one but you ever even reads it, your work is still protected by copyright law.

Immediately. As soon as you put pen to paper, brush to canvas, or fingers to keyboard, and create something original, it is copyrighted. You don’t have to, but it’s a good idea to add the copyright symbol to the things you create. Not having the symbol doesn’t mean content isn’t still protected by copyright. Learn more in this easy-to-understand video:

How Long Does Copyright Last?

In general, for any type of work, the copyright is in effect from the time the author creates it, until that author’s death, plus another 70 years beyond the date of death.
Copyright duration does vary, however, according to when the work was published and in what manner, and whether the copyright was renewed.

Original Authors

If you write a poem at the age of 20, it is immediately protected by copyright, and remains so for the duration of your lifetime. If you pass away at the age of 100, that poem will have been protected for 80 years, and the copyright will remain in effect for another 70 years after your death.

The copyright will be in effect for a total of 150 years. If you collaborate with two other people to create a new computer program, then the copyright is in effect throughout the life of the creator who lives the longest, and remains in effect for 70 years beyond the date of that person’s death.


It is possible to sell, also referred to as assign or transfer copyrights to others. This is how authors get their books published; they sell the rights to a publishing house. That publishing house then owns the copyright for that book. Corporate copyright ownership of works created after 2002 lasts longer than original author ownership; ”95 years after publication, or 120 years after creation, whichever expires first.


It is possible to bequeath creative works and their copyrights to people other than the original authors. For example, if you write a book, you can leave that book and its unsold rights to your heirs. If you do not specify in your will to whom you are leaving your creative works, they will most likely automatically pass to your heirs, but it depends on your state’s intestate (without a will) rules.

The point of all this is, never assume that because it’s been 70 years or more since the original creator of any work has passed away, their work is now freely available for your use.

Who Owns the Copyright?

The person or people who create an original work own the copyright. If you write a song, you own the copyright. If you collaborate with one other person to write a play, you both own the copyright.

However, there is an exception to this rule, and it applies to what are called “works made for hire.” If you are an employee of a company, and you create something — an e-book or a computer program — as part of your employment with that company (i.e., the work is performed as part of your job duties), these are works made for hire, and the company owns the copyright.

By the same token, if you’re a freelance writer, and someone contracts you to write a blog post for them, and they pay you for that blog post, then the post is a work made for hire, and the blog publisher owns the copyright to that content.

This is true in most cases, and copyright law does impose more restrictions here, but copyright ownership will most often default to the person or organization that pays you to create content for them.

In addition, if the company or entity for which you produced a creative work goes out of business, the copyright retention rules may remain in place.

This means that simply because a company ceases to exist does not necessarily mean they lose the copyrights they hold. They may be considered company assets, and can become part of debt settlement deals or bankruptcy proceedings, meaning they may be purchased by other entities. The copyright does not automatically revert to the original author.

Whether you’re a contractor or an employee, anything you create outside of those work arrangements, and for which you are not contracted or paid, belongs to you, and you retain the copyright.

Derivative Works

Content inspired by other content is called a derivative work. For example, when a movie is made from a book, the movie is the derivative work because it was derived from the book. In order to create a derivative work, you need permission from the creator of the original content, even if what you create is in a completely different medium, like a movie from a book.

However, copyright holders can choose to collaborate with and share copyright (and royalties) with derivative work creators, as demonstrated here:

How to Register a Copyright

While it’s not necessary to register a copyright in order to hold it, or for your work to be protected by it, copyright registration is possible, and is one avenue of protection you have available to you. Copyright registration is most often useful in situations where a creative work will be widely distributed, making it accessible to a large number of people. The more people who have access to something, the higher the probability that someone may attempt to copy that work in some way.

Registering the copyright documents the date of creation, and lists the original author as the owner of that work and its copyright, making it in a legal battle, should that ever become necessary.

It is true that simply by writing a story in a notebook, you own the copyright to that story.

However, if someone were to steal your notebook, publish your story under their name, and profit from it, you may have a difficult time proving ownership. This is where copyright registration provides a higher level of protection to original authors.

Registering a copyright is a fairly simple endeavor. It entails filling out a form provided by the U.S. Copyright Office, and paying a fee. You must also submit a copy of the work to be copyrighted.

Make sure it’s a copy and not the original because you will not get it back. Once the copyright has been issued, the work will be cataloged and stored in the Library of Congress.

What is Public Domain?

Works pass into public domain when their copyrights expire, are forfeited, or no longer apply. A couple of examples include the King James Bible, and William Shakespeare’s entire body of work. When something enters the public domain, two things happen:

  • it is freely available for public use
  • it is no longer available for private ownership

It’s important to remember, though, that copyright law varies from country to country, so it’s possible that a creative work may pass into the public domain in one country, yet still be protected by copyright in another.

What is Copyright Infringement?

It essentially comes down to using someone’s creative work without their permission. The simplest illustration of this is with photographic images.

If you publish a story online, and you use a photograph you found on the Internet, but you do not get the photographer’s permission to use that photo, nor do you pay to use the photo, you have infringed on that photographer’s copyright.

A helpful quote

This is true even if you did not profit from the use of that photo. Profit does not determine infringement; use without the original author’s permission is the definitive factor.

Copyright infringement still exists even if you somehow alter the original work. For example, if you add elements to that photo that do not exist in the original, this is called a derivative work, and is still an infringement of the photographer’s copyright.

The copyright owner has the ability to dictate in what manner their work can be used. A photographer (or writer, or singer) may retain all rights, meaning their work can only be used by other through payment for licensing.

Or, the original creator may choose to allow others to use their work as long as those who do give proper attribution. If you use someone’s work without adhering to their conditions for use, you’re committing copyright infringement.

Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism

The most basic difference between the two is this: Plagiarism entails copying someone else’s work and taking credit for it as your own original work; copyright infringement entails using someone else’s work and not paying them for it.

For example, say you’re writing an essay, and you include a paragraph you read in the New York Times, word for word, and don’t cite the newspaper as the source. You’ve committed plagiarism. More on that in the next chapter.

If you include with your essay a photo taken by someone else, and you did not either get the photographer’s permission or pay them to use their photo, you have committed copyright infringement.

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A Plagiarism Guide for Students

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” – Charles Caleb Colton

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

Let’s just get a couple of things out in the open. When you copy someone, you are not flattering them. It’s one thing to emulate someone’s style, to dress like the Hollywood celebrity of the moment, or the latest MTV darling. It’s quite another to copy someone’s writing. That’s plagiarism. Another word for it is stealing.

A lot of people may have never considered the two to be one and the same, but they are. Taking someone else’s creative work and calling it your own is theft, plain and simple. While you’re not in danger of any plagiarism cops showing up at your door to arrest you for plagiarizing a term paper, you are still putting yourself, your academic career, and possibly even your professional career at risk when you copy other people’s work.

What is Plagiarism?

We’ve covered this pretty succinctly, but let’s take a moment to look at the actual definition:

plagiarism: an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization, and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author

It’s important to know the full definition, and note that it includes not just using someone else’s work but “closely imitating” it. So if you’ve ever thought that changing a word here and there, or flipping around the order of a piece of writing was enough to avoid plagiarizing the work, you may have been plagiarizing without realizing it. This is called negligent plagiarism, but it’s still not an excuse, and won’t prevent you from suffering any consequences.

While plagiarism can be defined as copying someone’s writing word for word, that’s not the only type that exists, and why you may be plagiarizing without even knowing it. Be aware, though, that ignorance of what plagiarism is would not be a defense were you shown to have been copying someone’s work in any manner.

Types of Plagiarism

Think about whether you might have ever done any of these things when preparing schoolwork. You might need to change a few habits to avoid risk.

Copying and Pasting

This is pretty self-explanatory. Copying a sentence, paragraph, passage, page, or entire written work, and then pasting it into your own document to hand in as your own work is plagiarism. This is the most obvious type of content theft, and it shouldn’t be any surprise that it’s wrong, and that the consequences for it would be dire.

Imitating Reasoning Style

If you take a piece of content, and go sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, copying the ideas and rationales the writer used, but wording the sentences differently, you’re copying the author’s reasoning style, and the format that was used in the original work. For example, a piece might follow a logical format that presents a problem, asks how it can be solved, and then offers a solution.

Many households across the country are watching their electric bills creep up as summer temperatures continue to be higher than normal. Rather than cranking up the air conditioning to stay comfortable, alternative or additional cooling methods can help control those costs:

  • raise the thermostat by at least two degrees
  • use fans in the rooms that are occupied most often
  • keep window shades down to block heat and sunlight

If what you write follows that same logical progression, even if you use completely different wording, you are committing style plagiarism.

Families are paying more this summer to keep their homes cool as the country contends with a heat wave. Running the air conditioner more often may be tempting, but there are other ways to keep both indoor temperatures and expenses down:

  • increase the thermostat setting by two or more degrees
  • put a fan in the room to circulate air
  • reduce heat generated by sunlight by using shades on the windows

Switching Words

Exactly as the phrase suggests, this type of plagiarism entails changing word order from that of the original. For example:

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. They are often referred to as twisters or cyclones, although the word cyclone is used in meteorology, in a wider sense, to name any closed low pressure circulation. [Source: Wikipedia]

And with word-switch plagiarism:

Tornadoes, also called cyclones or twisters, are columns of air that rotate while in contact with both a cumulonimbus cloud and the earth’s surface. The air column may also be in contact with a cumulus cloud’s base, in rare cases.

You can see how nearly all the same words are used, but simply appear in different order. No original thought went into the plagiarized piece. It’s still copying someone else’s writing.

Copying Metaphors

Writers will often use metaphors to enhance their work, and to provide vivid visualizations of items or ideas they’re presenting. For example:

The stars glittered like precious jewels against the velvet fabric of the sky.

If, in your writing, you also compare the stars to jewels, or the night sky to velvet, you are copying the author’s metaphors, even if all the other words around them are different, and your original contributions.

Taking Ideas

Not all nonfiction writing is the statement of facts. Writers may present new ideas, or new perspectives on existing ideas. They may draw unique conclusions built on existing data. To take those perspectives, conclusions, or original thoughts as though you came up with them on your own is idea plagiarism.

More Types of Plagiarism

You may think there’s a way around plagiarism with electronic techniques or vocabulary gymnastics, but your professors are typically on to you.

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Why Do Students Plagiarize?

Sadly, plagiarism is a common occurrence in schools across the country, and around the world. It’s frequently discovered in high schools, colleges and universities, and even graduate-level schools and programs. Why, in learning institutions that encourage original thought and the sharing of ideas, do so many students plagiarize?

One answer may be the pressure students face to get good grades, or to get into certain colleges or programs. It can be easy to feel that those goals can’t be left to chance, and copying existing work creates more of a sure situation. And college is expensive. A bad grade is like money wasted, whether you’re paying for your education, or someone else is.

On that note, students who attend universities on scholarships may not be able to afford bad grades, or they run the risk of losing those scholarships. That’s a scary thought, especially for those who can’t afford to pay for school themselves.

It may also be that students feel overwhelmed, especially in college or specialty programs such as law school or medical school where the course loads can be daunting, and the expectations extremely high. Plagiarizing a paper or other writing assignment means it can be completed more quickly when there’s no real research or original thought involved, freeing up time for other assignments and work.

And let’s be honest — for some, it’s a matter of laziness. It’s easier to copy someone else’s work than to put in the time and effort to create something of your own. Then you can do the things schoolwork is keeping you from, such as going out with friends, playing sports, sleeping, playing video games, whatever it is you want to do.

All of these things are understandable — but not excusable. There’s a difference. Everyone feels overwhelmed from time to time, whether in school, at work, or at home. Everyone sometimes takes on more than they can handle. And of course everyone prefers to spend their time doing fun things.

School is hard work. No one denies that. But it’s going to become even more difficult if you’re caught plagiarizing.

Isn’t Information on the Internet Free For Anyone’s Use?

The short answer is no. Over time, as the Internet has grown and become a primary source for information for so many people, it can be easy to think that much of it is freely available, there for the taking.

But all information has to come from somewhere, has to have a source. Information does not simply appear on the Internet. It’s placed there, either by the people who created it, or the organizations that curated it. Work created by someone is intellectual property, and it’s protected by United States and international copyright law.

Whenever you use information you find on the Internet, you must cite the source where you found it.

How Will Anyone Know if You Copy Their Work?

It’s much easier than you may think to discover instances of plagiarism, whether the information was taken from an online source, or from a print source that has been digitized and uploaded to an online source.
Finding copies of written work can be as simple as placing a unique string of words into a search engine, but many tools exist for the sole purpose of discovering plagiarism. The creation of those tools has been necessitated by the prevalence of online plagiarism. As technology has advanced, so has the ability of these tools to discover even the smallest instances of plagiarism, even on small sites with little traffic.

And because so many books (including encyclopedias) have been digitized and shared online, it’s nearly as easy to find passages copied from print sources.
Now more than ever, if you plagiarize, you risk being found out fairly quickly and easily by anyone who takes the time to look, whether by design or by accident.

The Consequences of Plagiarism

As a student, you are especially vulnerable to consequences brought about by plagiarism. If you’re caught copying someone else’s work — whether it’s something you found online, in a book, or in another student’s paper — you may encounter any of several consequences:

  • a reduced or failing grade on the assignment that contained the copied material
  • a reduced or failing grade for the entire semester
  • suspension
  • expulsion

In addition, whenever you enroll in another class, or if you’ve been expelled and try to enroll in another school, the plagiarism charge may follow you. It can have an effect on whether or not another school decides to accept you as a student. And even if you are allowed entry to another school, you’ll be starting with a lack of trust from your professors, the administration, and possibly your fellow students, if word gets out about your previous trouble.
If you’re caught plagiarizing in high school, you may have difficulty getting into the college you want, or any college, for that matter. If you’re caught plagiarizing in college, you may lose the ability to graduate with any honors, or to participate in any special programs the school may offer to deserving students.

It’s also possible that plagiarism will follow you beyond college. After you graduate, when you’re trying to find a job, if potential employers discover that you have previously plagiarized published work, you may have a difficult time getting hired. No employer wants to hire a dishonest employee. Getting back to plagiarism essentially being theft, this means an employer would have to be amenable to hiring a thief to work in their company. Would you hire someone you thought might steal from you?

How to Avoid Plagiarism

It seems easy at first glance — just don’t steal other people’s work. But if you were previously unaware of the many types of plagiarism, and have engaged in one or more of them, you may find it difficult to break the habit.
First and foremost, be original. Write your own thoughts. Draw your own conclusions. Share your own ideas. This is the best way to avoid plagiarism.

That said, there will be times when you must write about existing facts and data, and for some information, you’ll be limited in the number of ways you can express it. For example, there are only so many ways to write instructions for starting a car. You make sure the car is in Park with the emergency brake on, you put the key in the ignition, turn it, apply a little gas if necessary, and the car starts. How many original ways can that be worded? Not many.
Such instances are understandable as being limited in the number of ways they can be written. Few people are going to claim you plagiarized a vehicle’s operating manual because you listed the steps to start a car.
But for information that’s not so common or widely known, but that you’re unable to word in an original way because it doesn’t come from your ideas or perceptions, you must cite the source.

How to Cite Information

Every school and organization will have its own rules about citing information, so before you write a paper or begin a project, check with your institution to find out whether they have a citation style guide, or any rules pertaining to information citation.
If no guide is available, then be sure to cite original sources in a logical and organized manner, and do so consistently. This can mean using footnotes or a bibliography. Either way, you must ensure all original sources are cited, and the information is clear and easy to understand.

If the project you’re working on is digital, then links will be your citations. It’s highly uncommon to see footnotes on a Web page (unless the Web page is displaying a digital version of a print source that used footnotes). Linking a few relevant words to their original source suffices as citation in the digital world.

The Takeaway

Aside from the many possible consequences of plagiarism, and the fact that it’s just wrong, plagiarism truly is unnecessary. You don’t have to be a grand writer of prose to share original ideas. While going the original route may be more labor intensive and time consuming, in the end, doing your own thing and producing work you can be proud of will be worth all the rewards that come from persistence and dedication.

Copyright vs Plagiarism

When it comes to copying things you aren’t supposed to, the consequences can be pretty harsh. However, not all copying is the same. It’s easy to confuse plagiarism with copyright infringement — they are both bad and involve illicit copying — but the difference is important. If you understand the difference, you probably won’t commit either offense.

The core of the issue is that the two things, copyright infringement and plagiarism, belong to two completely separate categories — they are not different versions of the same thing, but are rather two very different sorts of things.

Copyright infringement is a legal problem. Infringing on a copyright involves breaking a law. Defining what does and does not constitute infringement is the job of lawmakers. The consequences are determined and enforced by the legal.

Plagiarism, on the other hand, is an academic and ethical problem. Plagiarizing involves academic or professional dishonesty. Defining what does and does not constitute plagiarism is the job of school administrators or a professional board of ethics. The consequences are determined and enforced by a school or other institution.

What is copyright infringement?

In most countries (and all developed, “First World” countries), an author or creator of a work has a legal right to decide how that work will be used. The specific details of how this right is defined and enforced vary from place to place, but the general outline is remarkably consistent.

The creator of a work has the sole right to:

  • copy
  • distribute
  • perform
  • adapt or modify
  • benefit financially
  • assign any or all of these rights to another party

Having the sole right means that no one else has these rights, unless they have been assigned by the rights holder.

In most cases, these rights persist for the author’s entire lifetime, and pass on to the author’s estate and heirs for some period after his or her death (for example, in the U.S., copyright lasts for 70 years after the lifetime of the original creator).

Copyright infringement involves engaging in any of the above-listed activity, without having received the right to do so from the rights holder.

Examples of specific infringing activity include:

  • making photocopies of a protected book
  • making available audio files of a protected song
  • producing a protected play
  • writing a new song which copies the melody of a protected song
  • selling copies of copied album

When is copying not infringement?

Not all copying is infringement.

Copying might be legal because the specific circumstances fall under “Fair Use,” or because the original creator has permitted use with an Open license, or because the rights holder has specifically granted you a license, or because the work is no longer under copyright, or because the work was never eligible for copyright in the first place.

Fair Use

Fair Use is an exception to the restrictions created by copyright law. It allows one to make copies of a copyrighted work (or, more typically, portions of it)for the purpose of comment, criticism, or parody.

In the U.S., there is a four-fold test to determine if something qualifies for Fair Use protection:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

If you quote a few lines from a copyrighted work in an academic paper, that will almost always qualify as Fair Use:

  • The purpose of the work is academic, not-for-profit, and educational.
  • You are not copying the piece in its entirety, but merely quoting a few lines from it.
  • Your use is unlikely to have any impact on the value of the work.

Other countries have different specific rules about how Fair Use (or “Fair Dealing”) is defined, but they all have the same essential effect — commentary, parody, journalism, criticism, and review are all protected as Fair Use.

Open License

Many content creators — and even more software developers — are releasing their work under a non-restrictive license, such as the GPL, the MIT License, or Creative Commons.

Assuming that the terms of the license are followed (which usually includes attribution to the original creator), copying even an entire work does not constitute infringement.

Individal License

Copyright holders have the right to permit others to use their work, and they can stipulate whether or not any attribution is required.

If you are granted permission to use someone else’s work, that does not constitute copyright infringement.

Public Domain

Copyright protection does not last forever, and works created before a certain date (1923 in the United States) have passed into the Public Domain. These works are not “owned” by anyone, and any type of copying — even without attribution — does not constitute infringement.

Not eligible for copyright

Much to the dismay of many of the people who work in the affected fields, some types of work are simply not eligible for copyright protection.

Non-protected works include:

  • Fashion/clothing design
  • Jokes
  • Recipes

Copying any of these things would not constitute copyright infringement because there is no copyright to infringe.

Similarly — even within the realm of protected works, only the expression of a work is protected, not the idea. You cannot copyright an idea.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism is the act of passing off another person’s work as your own. While this seems related to copyright infringement, it is a very different situation.

For example, when you download a copyright-protected movie, you aren’t claiming the movie is your own. You are simply behaving as if you have a right you do not possess. You are infringing a copyright, but you are not committing plagiarism.

You don’t have to infringe to plagiarize

It is usually very easy to see that you can infringe on a copyright without committing plagiarism. Afterall, plagiarism only happens when you allow others to believe that something which isn’t your own original work is actually your own original work.

However, the reverse can sometimes confuse people: It is possible to be fully compliant with the copyright law, and still commit plagiarism.

And this is where it really starts to matter that copyright infringement and plagiarism are such different things — because any of the non-infringing situations described above could still include constitute plagiarism.

Fair Use, but still plagiarism

You are writing an essay. In your research, you run across the perfect statement to make your point. You copy it into your essay, without attribution.

This could be considered Fair Use:

  • The usage is academic, not-for-profit, and educational.
  • The original work is likely academic.
  • You only copied a single sentence.
  • This is not likely to have any impact on the value of the original work.

However, if you do not properly attribute the sentence to the original author, you are committing plagiarism. All it takes to do the right thing is to cite the original author, and attribute to the quote properly.

Open License, but still plagiarism

You are in a computer science class, learning to code. You’ve been assigned a small project.

You find an Open Source project that includes some code that accomplishes exactly what you are trying to accomplish. So you copy it, maybe change some variable names, and submit it as your own work.

Even if you are not violating copyright law due to the open license, you are committing plagiarism and engaging in academic dishonesty. The work is not yours, and you cannot claim that it is.

Individual License, but still plagiarism

You are in a creative writing class, and you have to write an original poem for an assignment. You can’t think of anything to write. Your roommate is a talented musician who writes songs all the time. Your roommate lets you use the lyrics from one of his songs as a poem for the class.

Your roommate has granted you an individual license to use his work — he has given you permission to pass it off as your own. That means that it is not copyright infringement, and you are breaking no laws.

However — it is definitely plagiarism. (This goes for copying homework, ghostwriting papers, or any other form of “consensual” cheating.)

Public Domain, but still plagiarism

You are in a music theory class. You have to write a short four-part chorale in the style of Bach. You go to the library and find the most obscure four-part chorale by Buxtehude (a contemporary of Bach), copy it, and submit it as your own.

You have broken no laws — Buxtehude’s work isn’t under copyright and you can do anything you want with it legally. You could even sell copies of it with your own name on the cover. That wouldn’t be illegal.

But it would be dishonest, and in an academic setting that constitutes plagiarism.

Not Eligible for Copyright, but still plagiarism

You are taking a fashion design class, and you have been assigned to draw a new dress design. You copy a design you see at the mall, with some very minor changes.

This is completely legal. In fact, you could manufacture and sell that dress in the store next door to where you found it, and there would be nothing illegal about any of that.

However, if you were assigned an original design and you simply copied someone else’s without attribution, you are plagiarizing.

This goes for ideas as well. If you claim a concept, idea, or line of reasoning as your own, you are plagiarizing.

Law vs. Ethics

Copyright infringement is a legal issue. When you infringe on someone else’s copyright, you are committing a crime. Copyright law — and the lawmakers who create it — determine what activity is and is not acceptable.

Plagiarism is a matter of ethics, of personal and professional integrity. This is why is it so much stricter, in a sense, than copyright law.

Because copyright is in the domain of law, it can sometimes be a little difficult to know just exactly where the line between legitimate Fair Use and infringement is. Also, navigating the complexities of when an older work falls into Public Domain can be tricky. It is a matter of law, and law always deals with specifics and technicalities.

Plagiarism is about honesty. If you are trying to figure out whether something has crossed the line into dishonesty, it probably has. If you are trying to find a loophole or a technicality, you are probably engaging in unethical behavior. But there are no “technicalities” in honesty and integrity.

You should be familiar with copyright law, and you should make sure that you don’t violate it — whether accidentally or intentionally. However, the fact that you didn’t actually break the law is no defense against academic or professional dishonesty.

Hold yourself to a higher ethical standard.

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DMCA Guide for Students

When you’re in school, it can feel like you’re insulated a bit from the outside world. It’s the high school or college that makes many of the rules you live by, and most of them are pretty easy to contend with. This doesn’t mean, though, that you may not at some point find yourself on the wrong side of a crossed line, and when that happens, the school may no longer be the buffer you’re accustomed to.

Specifically, if you — either intentionally or accidentally — break the law by engaging in copyright infringement, you may have to face some serious consequences, and your school will most likely not be able — or perhaps even willing — to come to your defense.

It may surprise you to know that many students find themselves in trouble over something that seems very simple and harmless — file sharing. According to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), sharing files you do not own is illegal, and can carry severe punishment if you’re caught.

What is the DMCA?

The easiest way to describe the DMCA is as an addendum to United States copyright law. It was written specifically to address copyright issues as they pertain to intellectual property found on and dispersed via the Internet.

The DMCA comes into play most often in two scenarios. First, when someone copies content that exists on a website, and publishes it on their own website. This is copyright infringement, and the DMCA provides guidance and recourse to address the situation.

The second instance where the DMCA is commonly at play is file sharing. Logging onto a file sharing or torrent site and downloading music, books, or any other copyrighted works without paying for them, is also copyright infringement, and is also remedied according to the DMCA.

In the instance of file sharing, provisions of the DMCA make it illegal both to upload (share) and download copyrighted material.

The DMCA also criminalizes methods of any kind created to bypass the technology that controls how copyrighted work is accessed. This technology is usually referred to as digital rights management (DRM).

What is DRM?

Referring to both the practice of levying copyright restrictions, and the technologies used to restrict access to copyrighted material, DRM’s purpose is to prevent users from copying that copyrighted material, whether it’s a song, a movie, an e-book, or any other electronic medium that conveys creative work. As a mechanism, DRM is basically a digital lock that prevents the copying of data.

For example, DRM on a compact disc will prevent the person who bought that disc from ripping the CD and saving the music to their computer. The thinking is that, once the CD is ripped, and the digital files are saved, they could then be distributed through file-sharing services. This would allow others to download the music without buying the CD, causing both the artist and the record label to lose out on potential revenue.

DRM is a controversial method of copyright protection, though, because these kinds of digital restrictions also prevent perfectly legal actions such as the CD’s purchaser backing up the CD they paid for, and libraries from lending CDs to library members. For this reason, some choose to refer to DRM as “digital restrictions management” rather than “digital rights management.”

Is it Illegal to Share Files From my Computer?

In a word, yes. To reiterate, the DMCA outlines criminal penalties for sharing and downloading files containing copyrighted material without having paid for that material.

How Will Anyone Know I’m File Sharing?

People who own copyrighted work often monitor the Internet for mentions or instances of their work. This is especially true for those who create work that is widely distributed, and from which they earn revenue. However, this doesn’t mean you’re being monitored directly. You may simply get caught up in a wider net.

For example, if a record label decides to go after a large file-sharing site that is known to allow the sharing of music files, then the initial issue between the record label and that site. As information is shared, though, identifying information of the site’s users may come to light.

A more likely — and more common — occurrence, though, is that you use one of the school’s computers — or your own computer, but on the school’s network — to download copyrighted material. When the copyright owner discovers their work has been infringed upon, they can take action. This will normally entail issuing a DMCA Notice.

What is a DMCA Notice?

When a copyright owner finds their work is being shared or used illegally, one of the benefits available to them through the DMCA is the ability to issue a DMCA notice. This notice will detail what information has been stolen, where it originated, where it’s been copied or downloaded, along with other identifying data. Copyright owners will rarely issue a DMCA notice directly to the party who has taken their work. They will instead issue the DMCA notice to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) of the person who has infringed their copyright.

An ISP is required by law to take action whenever they receive a DMCA notice, without exception. This action may include tracking the IP address that was used to illegally download a file. And this is where you may get into trouble.

Whether you used your own computer in your dorm room, or you used a desktop in the university computer lab, it’s not as difficult as you think to track the time and place a file was illegally downloaded or shared. Regardless of the fact that you may have used university property and university bandwidth for file-sharing, you alone will be held responsible for your actions. The school is under no obligation to provide you with any sort of protection.

What Will Happen if I’m Caught File Sharing?

Codes of conduct and general rules will vary from school to school. You may have to endure some sort of disciplinary action, which could be anything from a warning to expulsion, depending on the offense. Check your school’s policies on computer and Internet use, and file-sharing.

That’s just the school’s recourse, though. If the copyright holder decides to press charges against you for sharing or downloading their copyrighted material without permission or payment, you may end up in a situation where you need legal defense.

Protect Yourself

It could be that you have absolutely no interest in file-sharing or downloading copyrighted materials. You’re on the right track, so stick with it. However, other students may not be as conscientious as you are.

Never share your username or password with anyone. Period. Not your best friend, not your roommate. No one. Once that information leaves your hands, you can no longer guarantee it will be protected. You also can’t guarantee that it won’t fall into the wrong hands.

If someone uses your username and password to log into a computer, and then shares files or illegally downloads copyrighted material, you may still be held liable. Once those shared files are tracked down, and it is revealed that your username and password were used for illegal activity, you will have a very difficult time proving your innocence.

Also, remove any file-sharing software you may have on your computer. This will help prevent any mishaps. And if you’ve ever shared files, or downloaded files illegally, your best bet is to delete all those files now. Copyright infringement has become a serious — and for some, lucrative — issue. Keeping file-sharing software, or shared files on your computer is putting yourself at risk.

If you must listen to a favorite song, or see the latest movie release, you have other legal options available to you:

  • wait for them to come out, and then buy them
  • check CDs or DVDs out from the library
  • borrow a friend’s CDs or DVDs
  • buy used CDs and DVDs, and still own them, but for less money

Nothing is worth risking your academic career (or your scholarship, if you have one), especially not a few music files, or a pirated movie.

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What Students Should Know About Copyright

Why is it important for you, as a student, to understand copyright? Because during your academic career (and possibly beyond, into your professional career as well), you will be called upon to write papers, essays, reports, and any number of projects.

Recommended Books:

Copyright Handbook

The Copyright Handbook

You will be asked not only to present your original works and ideas in those projects, but to support them through citations of facts and the work of others.

Producing an original work of your own, and separating your thoughts and ideas from those of others, is essential to the ethical and respectable completion of your academic efforts.

Properly citing the work of others, and giving credit where credit is due, is not only legally required, it’s simply the right thing to do.

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