Throughout college, I would get anxious when I submitted papers to a professor who used plagiarism software. I always cited my sources, following the correct style format of the professor’s choosing, but there was always that shadow of a doubt whether the words I wrote were in fact my words, or if I had read them or heard them somewhere else and just didn’t remember.

Another challenge in writing is determining what exactly is considered common knowledge and what isn’t. For instance, it is common knowledge that two plus two is four, or that London is the capital of Britain. Statements about common knowledge facts generally do not need a citation for plagiarism purposes or for evidence when writing an analytical paper.

Pretty much every university in the United States has policies regarding plagiarism. The penalties are usually based on the severity of the offense and can lead to a failure in the class, academic probation, or even expulsion from the university. If you’re expelled from one university you may be barred from attending another one. In other words, the stakes are high for students who plagiarize.

But what about outside of the classroom setting? What happens in the real world if you are caught plagiarizing? James Watson and Francis Crick used Rosalind Franklin’s findings on DNA and went on to receive a Nobel Prize, which doesn’t seem like a punishment at all! More recently, Melania Trump has been accused of plagiarizing her speech from Michele Obama. The result? Everyone seems to have shifted their attention to the speechwriter who may or may not have been writing the plagiarized speech on Trump’s business time rather than the campaign time, which is a federal offense. However, it seems that there aren’t going to be any consequences for Melania. However, Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke and TI have been sued by Marvin Gaye’s family over the song Blurred Lines. Williams and Thicke have to pay 7.5 million to the Gayes and may even face further consequences if the Gayes win further appeals.

Another huge blurred line (pun intended) in plagiarism and copyright law are the use of images found on the Internet. Simply citing the source of the image isn’t enough if you don’t have permission to use the image. There are fair use photos provided through the creative commons that can be used without permission. There are also guidelines on determining if it is OK to use an image found on the Internet or not. These guidelines are hard to understand, however, and can be a bit daunting to figure out.

In some instances, even the original owners of images find themselves in the midst of a copyright infringement lawsuit. Carol Highsmith was accused of using copyrighted images on her website and a letter sent to her demanded she take down the photos and pay Alamy and Ghetty $120 for compensation. However, the photographs in question were her own that she had donated to the Library of Congress. So now Highsmith is suing Alamy and Ghetty for selling her photos that were intended to be fair use. This begs the question, what do you do if you can’t even trust the claims of companies selling goods that the goods are or are not copyrighted?

If the internet were a book, it would probably be the most plagiarized piece of work ever published. The internet, while being a huge, wonderful hive of information, is also laden with false information, plagiarized works and a whole lot of people who don’t know or don’t care that they could possibly be using an image, video, book quote, etc., without permission. There is no FBI warning when you open your browser the way there is when you watch a DVD. Perhaps it’s because the laws are so vague and a lot of them are outdated. However, you never know when someone like an image company is going to try and shut down your website.

Not all professors check to see if a students work is plagiarized, but if and when they do, the consequences could ruin someone academically. Watson and Crick got a Nobel Prize for something they discovered by stealing information. The prize was awarded after Franklin passed away so there is no way in knowing if she would have also been recognized for her part in the discovery of the double helix, or if she would have tried to sue them. It is not clear if Melania Trump is going to suffer any sort of consequences outside of internet memes and political satire making fun of her. On the other side, though, Robin Thicke and Pharrell are going to be in a long drawn out legal battle for copyright infringement. Worst of all is the photographer who now has to sue a company for selling her fair use photos that were never meant to be sold.

Jennifer Crawford, MLIS
Marketing Librarian for Access Innovations, Inc.