Unintentional Plagiarism is Still Plagiarism

Guest Post by Irene Watson

No author wants someone else to steal his or her work, and yet great ideas and great quotes, sayings, and articles are frequently spread around the Internet today and are reprinted in self-published books without proper attribution. Too often, people plagiarize other people’s works, sometimes intentionally, but quite often because they do not know any better. Before publishing someone else’s work, it’s important to understand copyright and fair use laws.

You love a poem you saw on the Internet and want to quote it in your book. But is that plagiarism? You want to quote a passage in a book but you’re not sure whether you need to ask permission or not. What counts as fair use and when do you need permission to use a copyrighted work?

All the time I see people stealing from other people on the Internet by reposting their articles, stories, or photographs. Before you post anyone else’s information on your website or use it in your book, you need to get permission. Yes, there are such things as public domain and fair use, but it’s always best to be safe regardless. Before you decide to use something that belongs to someone else and risk angering that person and facing a potential lawsuit, ask yourself a few questions:

1. Do I really need this piece of information, poem, cartoon, or whatever it is? Will my book or website be okay without it?

2. Is this item in the public domain?

3. If it’s not in the public domain, can I use part of it under the fair use laws?

4. Can I rewrite or reword the work and then reprint it?

5. Is giving credit enough?

Let’s look at each of these questions in detail.

Do I really need this piece of information? Will my book or website be okay without it?

I can almost guarantee that in every situation the information, document, poem, cartoon, or whatever it is, is something you can do without. Why use someone else’s property to illustrate your own? Hire your own cartoonist, artist, or write your own poem. If you can’t do that, then look for one in the public domain. If you, however, absolutely want to include something that is copyrighted, then be prepared to pay for it. You will need to contact the owner or his or her heir for permission, and you will doubtless have to sign some sort of document promising you will only use it as you are given permission to do so. You will also usually have to pay to use it, especially if it is for commercial purposes, such as in a book you plan to sell, and you’ll usually pay dear for it—in the hundreds of dollars or more is not uncommon. At that price, do you really need to include it in your book or on your website?

Is this item in the public domain?

Just what constitutes public domain? It varies by country and by the kind of work it is. Today for authors, copyright in the United States is for life plus 70 years, so if I were to die tomorrow, it being the year 2012, anything I write would be copyrighted until 2082. However, copyright laws were less stringent in the past so some works may have shorter copyrights that have expired. As a rule, if an author or artist has been dead since 1941 or earlier, you’re probably safe, but it still never hurts to investigate. Furthermore, while an old work like “Don Quixote” may be in the public domain, that doesn’t mean a modern translation of it is.

What counts as fair use?

If a work is not in the public domain, a lot of the time you can still use a small part of it if appropriate, such as a quote or passage, usually not to exceed a page. That said, a short work like a poem cannot be used in its entirety despite its short length because you will be using the whole work, but you might be able to quote a verse or stanza from it. Even so, in such cases it is best to play it safe and ask for permission to quote from the work in your book or on your website. What constitutes fair use depends on many circumstances including: the purpose of its usage, whether it is commercial or charitable, whether the quote is used to promote the work such as in a book review, or whether your use of it will harm sales of someone else’s book because you provide too much information from it.

To go direct to the source, here is what the 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites as examples of fair use:

“quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.” (source: http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html)

There are always fine lines that exist in using someone else’s work. Even if you are sure it falls under fair use laws, if it’s not in the public domain, it’s best to ask for permission to use the work, and if that seems impractical, it is always best to consult an attorney.

Can I rewrite or reword the work and then reprint it?

You may paraphrase a work by giving a summary of a basic idea, provided you give credit to the source, but you may never rewrite someone else’s work and pass it off as your own, or even as theirs when it is rewritten. And even when you paraphrase an idea, it is still someone else’s idea (intellectual property) so you must give credit where it is due.

Is giving credit enough?

No, it’s not enough to give credit. You need permission to reprint as well, unless as noted above, it is in the public domain. You must always give credit to the owner, whether it be an author, publication, artist, another website, etc. It is usually sufficient to state who is the original creator or copyright holder of the work. For a poem, provide the title and the author’s name. For a passage from a book, you can state, “George Smith states in his book ‘My Brilliant Ideas,’ that:” Depending on your own book or website, you may want to consult a style manual for how best to cite a source. “The Chicago Manual of Style” is the preferred style manual to use for most books, although others exist depending on the kind of book you are writing, such as the “Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association” (APA style) or the “Christian Writers Manual of Style.” If you do receive permission to reproduce copyrighted material, make sure you ask the owner how you are to cite that permission to reprint the work.

Always find out if a work is copyrighted and always give credit where it is due. Then you will avoid issues of fair use violation, copyright infringements, and plagiarism that can later come back to haunt you.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on August 5, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Robina Williams

    Thanks for another most useful article, Irene. Excellent advice.

  2. The most common and ironically the highest risk abuse is that of song lyrics. These are extremely valuable assets and even quoting as little as one line can get you into trouble. Also, they often have to be licensed from three or more entities (performer, arranger, composer) and it costs hundreds of dollars and takes 30 to 90 days to complete. If I see these, I always tell the author, just quote the song title, which is never a copyright issue. Either the reader knows the song and will internally quote the lyrics to themselves or they don't know the song and the lyrics would mean nothing to them whatsoever and hence be wasted.

  3. Thanks for this post, Irene. How does this apply to newspaper articles? I recently copied an entire review of a performance into a blog post. I made it clear this was a "repost" from a local newspaper and spoke glowingly of the critic and his excellent reviews. I also included links to the paper. Was this acceptable?I think of you often and hope you are doing well.

  4. Irene, thank you for reminding everyone of the importance of respecting intellectual property rights. As authors who create intellectual property, it is especially important to respect the rights of others to control the use of their creations. One note on public domain: You are correct that current U.S. law protects works created now for the author's life plus 70 years. However, this statement is not correct: "As a rule, if an author or artist has been dead since 1941 or earlier, you’re probably safe, but it still never hurts to investigate."Works copyrighted prior to 1923 are generally in the public domain, but it has nothing to do with when the author died. In fact, if an author published a book in, say, 1935, then died in 1937, their work may still be covered by copyright if it was properly renewed.My rule is that you should always check the copyright status of a work and/or get permission before using anything that is not your original work.

  5. Patricia, it's probably acceptable but I suggest you contact the newspaper and get permission to reprint. This way, you will be safe.

  6. Very timely! I write articles for a small newspaper for which I am paid a small amount per story. I figure I average about $1/hour when the research and attention to detail I provide is considered; however, I love the work and the people who own the paper are lovely, ethical and the paper is one of quality reporting. I can submit articles and still write novels. Where's the issue?I have been seething for six months or more as the material I submit for publication (it's a monthly newspaper magazine) shows up slightly altered in a competing, major daily newspaper under the spouse name for a person who also writes for the small paper. If it's not the article itself, with additions and new quotes added, (my turn of the word is easily recognized within the article) it is a scoop with the same topic from a slightly different perspective.Coincidence? The number of times makes it more than coincidence and the unique topics are unlikely selected by two different papers in the same month. However, when I brought it to the attention of the publisher for whom I work, the comment made was, "even if it is not coincidence, we are more creative." This is a small community; the people interviewed by me trust my judgment. What do they think if they see their words twice? Or are perhaps interviewed twice? I feel as if I am just "ranting" a bit in a situation for which there is no fix. I research; I interview; I am paid. If someone else reaps a financial benefit from my work, it is on the fine line between coincidence and making an accusation that would do nothing positive in a small community.

  7. This is a great topic! My great grandfather was a war hero, and his stories have been passed down from generation to generation. I started a novel based on one story he told then found it was recorded in a local newspaper at the time and later in a collected work of Civil War stories. Even though it was recorded, it was recorded quoting my great grandfather as he told the story. Since he has long passed, can't the story be recorded again in my novel? It is my intention to change it considerably so that it is no longer reality but rather a fiction account. Can a relative who reads the novel come forth and complain because I used his story? Can someone claim a copyright to his story for its being recorded in a collection? Since he was famous, it can also be found on the Internet as recorded in the collection.

  8. Thanks, Cathy. You're absolutely right that just because it's been 70 years since the author died doesn't mean the copyright has expired, which is why I said it's best to check. For example, the estate for Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind renewed the copyright, by having a sequel written before the copyright expired to protect the characters, extending the copyright on them and prohibiting other people from writing sequels.Yes, 1923 is the safest year to go by for anything in public domain.

  9. Great advice, Ilene. (I'm a former lawyer who did not practice in the intellectual property area, but I have looked up the law for my personal use.) D. K. Christi, it sounds as if you're writing a fictional account of a real story involving your great-grandfather that was published in a newspaper and a collection of true war stories. I believe you can do that as long as you don't copy either the newspaper or book story word for word. Nobody owns a real story. The author of a newspaper article or story in a book based on the real story owns what she/he wrote about it, not the story itself.

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