Plagiarism is the use of another person’s words or ideas without attribution. The word plagiarism derives from the Latin words meaning “Literary Thief”. Today we’ll explore how this complex issue relates to professional communication, and how to avoid professional embarrassment and risk.
Plagiarism is a type of theft. Yet, nobody has ever been charged in a court of law for plagiarism. That’s because plagiarism is primarily an ethical issue, not a legal doctrine. The punishment a plagiarist receives is social stigma and professional embarrassment.
However, it’s important to understand that plagiarism does not occur just because one person expresses the words of another without attribution. For example, politicians use speechwriters; lawyers use junior associates to draft briefs and memos; celebrities use ghostwriters etc. This is not plagiarism because of one word: consent. If a person has the permission to use the words of another person (with the exception of an academic environment) it is not plagiarism.
The problem arises when there is no consent. While plagiarism isn’t illegal, copyright infringement is. If an entrepreneur takes information from a competitor (e.g. a published report of research findings etc.) and expresses it as his/her own, it’s possible the plagiarist could also be sued under the legal doctrine of unfair competition. Bottom line: What might be seen as harmless “copying and pasting” could cause a lot of problems for your company and a career.
When creating marketing and web-content, producing employee policies, or anything else that involves the expression of words and ideas through writing….make sure the words are original. If they are not, make sure you have the permission of the author(s).
In 2002, a Pulitzer Prize winning author lost a prestigious TV job because she plagiarized the work of another author. A few years later, the CEO of a Fortune 500 company plagiarized a management booklet…the Board of Directors cut his stock compensation by $1 million. While these are extreme examples of the perils of plagiarism, they go to show the professional costs can be significant.
Most people caught plagiarizing chalk-it-up to sloppy note taking; or they believe their ideas are original despite being influenced by others (psychologists call this phenomenon cryptomnesia). This is probably true in most cases. Yet, intent doesn’t really matter in courts of law or public opinion. Plagiarists are viewed as thieving, lazy or both even if the plagiarism was accidental. Those who attribute credit to others will be viewed as more trustworthy. Trust advances careers.
Writing can be a great way to advance a career. Obviously, what we write will — in part — be influenced by the words and thoughts of others. So, how do we write without plagiarizing? First, avoid copying and pasting. Secondly, note that common knowledge and your original thoughts needn’t be attributed. However, if you are conveying a thought that derives from another person’s thoughts — whether those thoughts were written or spoken — give that person credit.
Green,P. (2002). Plagiarism, Norms, and the Limits of Theft Law: Some Observations on the Use of Criminal Sanctions in Enforcing Intellectual Property Rights. Hastings Law Journal. 54(1).
Karp, J. (2006). Raytheon Penalizes CEO Financially After Plagiarism. Wall Street Journal.
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