Most already know that plagiarism is an ethical infraction and a violation of your school or workplace’s honor code. If you’re caught plagiarizing, you can be punished by your school, fired from your job, or even have your career ruined.
But what about legal consequences? Is it possible for a plagiarist to get sued or, even worse, face criminal action? The answer is that it depends on the nature of the plagiarism.
The most obvious way that a plagiarism can become a legal issue is copyright infringement.
Copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of an original work. Plagiarism, often times, violates those rights both by copying the work without permission and distributing it.
However, not all plagiarisms are copyright infringements. For example, one can plagiarize from sources that are out of copyright (meaning in the public domain) and not commit copyright infringement. Likewise, ideas and facts are not protected by copyright but can definitely be plagiarized. Finally, copying and reuse of short passages without attribution is a form of plagiarism but is unlikely to be a copyright infringement.
In short, plagiarism is about whether or not a work is properly cited while copyright infringement focuses on the use of the original work. While there is overlap between the two, they are far from one and the same. Furthermore, most plagiarisms that are copyright infringements would likely still be copyright infringements even if they were properly cited.
However, copyright is not the only way for plagiarism to end up in court. Outside the classroom, when submitting research grants or providing projects to clients, there are often contracts that require the work submitted to be original. Plagiarism is a breach of that contract and can result in a lawsuit.
One famous example of this was author Kaavya Viswanathan, who only avoided a breach of contract lawsuit with her publisher by returning the advance she was given on her book.
But while civil cases involving plagiarism are rare, criminal cases are even more so. However, they are not unheard of.
In the United States, researcher Craig Grimes faced a criminal fraud investigation over his acceptance of duplicative grants he received for the same proposal. While the charges were dropped, he was given a two-year ban on receiving funding for research.
Instead, criminal cases are more common in other countries and are usually tied to the nation’s copyright regime.
For example, in 2012 in India, former Delhi University vice-chancellor Deepak Pental was put in jail over allegations that he plagiarized a colleague’s research. That same year, a Polish professor faced up to three years in prison for plagiarizing in a book under the nation’s copyright law.
However, this is an area of rapid development as the UK, as well as other countries, are looking to criminalize contract cheating. This could see students who engage in contract cheating facing criminal punishments, including a permanent record of their misdeeds.
For right now though, plagiarism rarely becomes a criminal or civil matter, especially when it’s in the classroom. However, it can and does happen. As if one needed another reason to avoid plagiarism, the potential legal consequences should provide an additional motivation.