Plagiarism. It’s a really big word. I used to call it “cheating” in school. In the world of “big people” though, plagiarism is stealing someone else’s information and presenting it as your own. We know that this is ethically wrong, but in our age of the Internet, it is a massive problem – not only in schools, colleges and universities – but in the private and public sectors too.
Plagiarism is an undermining of some of our best human qualities: transparency, honesty, acclamation and achievement. The reason we have copyright and patent laws is to protect these qualities. Credit should be given where credit is due. On a legal level, plagiarism could even be considered a crime – yes, a crime – and there are some very severe consequences.
Almost every country on the planet protects copyright, this is because the TRIPS Agreement (The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) was signed in 1994. The TRIPS Agreement outlines universal regulations for intellectual property rights and copyright protection and more.
In addition to TRIPS, every country will have its own laws in place.
In South Africa, employees can face immediate dismissal for plagiarism. TTRO’s quality assurance specialist and research-junkie, Candice Grobler has done some extensive research into these global laws. Plagiarism itself, isn’t punishable by law in South Africa, but copyright infringement is.
If convicted of copyright infringement you can face a fine of R5000 or three years’ imprisonment for a first time offence, or a R10 000 fine or five years imprisonment for subsequent offences. In the UK, you could face up to ten years in prison or a £50 000 fine and in the US, you can face a fine of $150 000 or a jail sentence.
Different media have different protections, in music and the visual arts there’s a lot of grey area, so make sure you do your research about permissions. Because even if you accidentally plagiarise something, you won’t necessarily be protected.
For editorial however, giving credit for portions of text is easy and you can quote or paraphrase sources without threat of prosecution, provided you mention the author, publication or article name (and year of publishing if you can). You can insert this in brackets, as a footnote or create a short list of sources in a bibliography.
Obviously, it all depends on your context, and the formality of the document you’re writing, so make sure you’re aware of how you should present it beforehand.
For example, most of our blog articles on the TTRO blog don’t have references, that’s because the words and thoughts are our own. But when we do feel someone else’s ideas are needed, we make sure to reference them.
There is a very simple way to check for plagiarism online. You can Google a phrase to see if it’s been published elsewhere. You can also use apps like Grammarly or Plagscan. There are many others out there, so feel free to find one that works for you.
If you’ve been the victim of plagiarism and you believe your copyright has been infringed upon, you can take action. Follow up with the regulatory bodies in your country, again a simple Google search should point you in the right direction. In South Africa, you can lodge a complaint at SARS, the CIPC or the South African Police Services (SAPS) and they will help you to make a case.
The consequences of plagiarism – both on a social and legal level – are quite serious, yet there are still individuals and organisations who seem to believe that it’s worth the risk. I don’t have the answer for why that is.
Perhaps it’s a moment of weakness, or perhaps it’s a serious disregard for the law and social norms or maybe it’s just ignorance, I don’t know, I’m not a wizard. But through constant vigilance and staying informed, we can protect ourselves from this plague.
Mail and Guardian, 2004.
South African Copyright Protection
CIPC – http://www.cipc.co.za/index.php/trade-marks-patents-designs-copyright/enforcement/how-lodge-complaint/
US Copyright Protection