While the terms “copyright infringement” and “plagiarism” are often incorrectly used interchangeably, they are different harms.
Authors Alliance is grateful to Nicolas Charest, Copyright Research Assistant, for providing this overview for authors to clarify how copyright infringement and plagiarism differ.
Copyright infringement is a harm that is grounded in law: It is a violation of the exclusive rights of a copyright holder to reproduce and distribute a copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, or to perform or display the work publicly. An infringement of one of these rights, such as the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work, gives rise to a claim under federal law where a copyright holder may be entitled to a monetary remedy and a court can order the infringing party restrain from further infringement.
Plagiarism, on the other hand, is a harm that is grounded in ethics. Put simply, plagiarism is the act of using another’s work or ideas and not giving proper credit, instead falsely presenting it as the user’s own. There is no statutory prohibition against plagiarism. Instead, plagiarism is governed by community norms and the consequences of plagiarism are most likely to be professional or academic sanctions. To avoid plagiarizing another’s work or ideas, authors should properly credit the source of the ideas or words used in their text, with adequate references and citations appropriate to their discipline, and use quotation marks where appropriate when quoting directly.
Sometimes plagiarism also rises to the level of copyright infringement, but not always. For example, authors may freely use materials in the public domain without concern for copyright liability, and some unauthorized uses of copyrighted material are permitted under exceptions to copyright like fair use. While these uses are not copyright infringement, they may still be plagiarism if the work is used in a manner that presents the work or ideas as the user’s own. Likewise, usurping the ideas of another creator without properly crediting the source of the idea is not copyright infringement (copyright protects expression, not ideas), but may be plagiarism.
On the flip side, a use may be copyright infringement, but not plagiarism. For example, unauthorized copying may be copyright infringement if it does not fall under an exception to copyright, but if the source is attributed and the user is not claiming the work as her own, it is unlikely to also be plagiarism.