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  • Ipsa Raj

Is plagiarism similar to copyright infringement?

Intellectual property is something one can perceive, but cannot touch, since its abstract in nature. This ab initio nature is one of the reasons, why it gets difficult to frame stringent laws against its violation. Despite a large spectrum of ideas and artworks, the definition of plagiarism has been laid.

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional.


Although they have certain common elements, plagiarism and copyright infringement are not the same. There are important differences. Copyright protects works embodying intellectual output. The works must exist in a material form. Copyright has as its subject matter the material expression of intellectual output, not the ideas, information, etc. embodied in the material expression. As evidenced in the dictionary definition, plagiarism additionally covers thoughts, inventions, ideas, and the like. All these conceptions are not, per se, protected by copyright. Plagiarism is thus a wider concept than copyright infringement. In a sense, copyright infringement may broadly considered as species of the genus “plagiarism.”

Copyright can be infringed by unauthorized acts for purely personal use. Copyright can only be enforced by its owner or by a duly appointed exclusive licensee. The remedies flowing from copyright infringement comprise an interdict or injunction restraining the infringing conduct, damages, and delivery of infringing copies.

A classic case of infringement of copyright in, for instance, a literary work (existing in a material form, such as a book, article in a journal, and so on) entails someone reproducing a substantial part of that work without the permission of the copyright owner and without any accreditation of the author of that work. Such an act of infringement would also constitute plagiarism, as it has all the elements of an act of plagiarism. In this situation, copyright infringement and plagiarism run in parallel. However, if, for instance, the source work does not enjoy copyright because the term of copyright has expired (e.g. the works of Shakespeare), or it does not exist in a material form (e.g. an impromptu, unscripted speech), there would be no copyright infringement, but there could still be plagiarism. Conversely, if the copyist reproduced an unreasonably substantial part of the copyrighted literary work and credited the copyright owner as the author of the copied passage, no plagiarism would be committed, but there would be copyright infringement if no permission for the use of the copied part had been given by the copyright owner.

So, by analyzing and applying the respective elements of copyright infringement and plagiarism as set out above, one can think of a myriad of cases where using someone else’s work can constitute copyright infringement and not plagiarism, and vice versa. Where plagiarism falls within the ambit of copyright infringement, it can be a violation of the ethical norm and be unlawful at the same time – not because it is plagiarism, but rather, because the conduct in question also constitutes copyright infringement.

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