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Information about copyright compliance

Copyright and Plagiarism

By the time we enter college, many students know that plagiarism is the act of taking someone else's words, ideas, or work and passing it off as their own. In the academic world, there are serious penalties for plagiarism. These penalties can vary widely depending on the type of plagiarism violation, but you can expect at best to receive a warning from your professor and at worst to be removed from the university. While these sanctions are severe enough to end your educational career, and possibly your job prospects within a certain field, you likely won't be forced to pay a fine or face other legal sanctions outside of the university setting because you didn't cite your source material. Copyright infringement, on the other hand, is the type of violation that can not only end your academic and/or professional career, but carries heavy legal penalties which can include up to one year of jail time for serious offenses.

Copyright infringement and plagiarism are alike in the following ways:

  • Both are a form of theft
  • Both use an author's/creator's words, ideas, and work in a way that may not have been intended by the author/creator.

Copyright infringement and plagiarism differ in the following ways:

  • Plagiarism violates the university's policy on academic integrity, but does not break federal law. Copyright infringement breaks federal law, specifically Title 17 of United States Code (you can read it and amendments here: This means when you violate copyright, you may be subject to fines and jail time.
  • Copyright infringement involves the distribution of copyright protected material to other entities without an author's/creator's permission, whether you profit directly or indirectly from that distribution. Plagiarism is an act committed by an individual where content is not distributed for larger consumption beyond the classroom environment.
  • Copyright infringement has a direct and often immediate economic impact on the author/creator of the illegally used work, whether you are distributing the work to a larger audience or bypassing controls in order to illegally download a work for your own purposes. Plagiarism can have an indirect economic impact if you have taken someone else's words, ideas, or work and used it to further your education and/or career. In that sense, you benefit economically from the theft when you plagiarize, but may not see the results of that benefit for many years to come.

Is it possible to plagiarize and violate copyright?

Absolutely! Remember that plagiarism is the academic violation of passing someone else's work or ideas as your own in order to receive a grade. Copyright is the legal term associated with the theft of intellectual property. If you use illegal means to obtain or distribute any kind of intellectual property, even the content that you use in your academic pursuits, you are committing copyright infringement.

True or False: A Quick Q&A about Copyright

Read through each question below in order to test your awareness of copyright compliance. Click View Answer to view the correct answer for each question.

True or False: Information on the Internet can be freely used for any purpose because the author/creator posted it in a public area.

True or False: If I don't want to buy a textbook, I can just order one from the library.

True or False: I can make copies of my textbook to share with classmates who haven't bought the book.

True or False: Music available for free download online is protected by copyright.

Avoiding Copyright Infringement and Plagiarism

Use the following resources to check your work for plagiarism:

In general, you can avoid copyright infringement by doing the following:

1- Watch your digital imprint. What you put online can live online forever, and this includes materials that are in CD, DVD, print, or other format that you convert into an online accessible format. This opens you up to copyright violation. Read the fine print on anything that you buy. If you had to pay for it first, it likely isn't supposed to be shared with a larger audience unless there is an agreement in place which specifically tells you to do so.

2- Treat the content of your online course as property of your professor and the university, and do not post what you see there online for larger public consumption.

3- Be aware of what you share. Some entities are now pursuing litigation not only against those who illegally upload their content, but also against those who share it for larger public consumption via social media. 

4- Be careful what you download. If a retailer is selling it, while someone else is offering it for free, do the homework on the free service before you buy/download. To start, you may be getting a lesser version of the original. Entering your credit card information into a scam site which may be hosted overseas will also leave you as the consumer with very little recourse to get your money back. In terms of copyright, you may also be subject to litigation for the illegal download. The 2001 court case against Napster is a good example of how you, as the consumer, could also be liable in these situations.

5- If a course asks you to complete assignments like PowerPoint presentations where images might be embedded, cite your source and consider using the Advanced Search feature in Google to seek out images which are marked for reuse by their copyright owners. The following blog post from the Official Google Blog can walk you through it: