Copyright vs. Plagiarism

Copyright infringement and plagiarism are related, but distinctly different situations.

Copyright does not protect ideas.  It only protects the fixed expression of those ideas.  A person infringes on copyright when he or she copies, distributes, displays, etc. the work in a manner that is in violation of copyright law.  Copyright infringement is a legal matter.  

Plagiarism on the other hand is when someone passed off the work of someone else as one’s own or without acknowledgement of the original source.  Plagiarism is avoidable by making sure you always give credit to the original source when using the ideas or works of someone else in your own work.  This is an ethical situation that is addressed by university policy and may have negative repercussions if violated, but it is not a legal matter.

It is possible to be guilty of either one of these situations and not the other, or both of these situations at the same time. 

Scenario 1 (plagiarism without copyright violation): If you copy the words to one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and put your own name to it,  and then post this to a Web site, you would be guilty of plagiarism but not copyright infringement.  Since Shakespeare’s works are in the public domain, you have no reason not to copy and use them at your discretion.  However, by passing the work off as your own, you have plagiarized Shakespeare.  To avoid a charge of plagiarism, be sure to correctly cite and credit the source of any information you borrow from others.


Scenario 2 (copyright violation but not plagiarism): If you copy the lyrics to a recent top 40 song and post it to a Web site with credit given to the singer or artist who recorded the song, you would be guilty of copyright infringement, but not plagiarism.  Since you have credited the original source you are not claiming the ideas as your own.  However, since you are distributing copyrighted material without the copyright owner’s permission, you are infringing on their copyright.


Scenario 3 (both copyright violation and plagiarism): If you copy the lyrics to a recent top 40 song and post it to a Web site, claiming it as your own work, you have violated the copyright on the work and you have also plagiarized the songwriter.


To learn more about plagiarism, contact the Miller Writing Center.  

Auburn’s academic honesty code