Sweet, Sweet Danger: OR, The Differences Between Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Being taught how to write is like being given a golden ticket into Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Go in there, and express yourself!

Go Crazy!

Make cool stuff!

Build! Imagine! Envision! Fashion! Formulate! Produce! Play! Create! Construct! Compose!


However, there are two rules you need to follow if you don’t want unleash trouble.

Rule #1: If someone else made it, Don’t you dare pretend it was you!

[“Look! I made a cupcake!”

“Dude, that cupcake looks suspiciously like the one John made…hey…is that John’s cupcake?”


“Oh, I think it is. You’re gonna swell and turn blue now, man! You shouldn’t’a done that!”]

Rule #2: Don’t take what someone else made, make one just like it and pass it around.

[“Hey everybody! I’ve got some really tasty cupcakes over here! Come get one, they’re the best you’ve ever had!”

“Dude, all these cupcake look like John’s!”

“Yeah! They’re John’s! I made a bunch of them just like John’s! They are awesome!”

“Did you ask John first? You can’t just make cupcakes exactly like John’s! You certainly can’t give them out to other people! They’re gonna come for you, man. They’re gonna drag you out of here while they sing about how badly your parents raised you.”]

Breaking Rule # 1 is Plagiarizing. Breaking rule # 2 is Copyright Infringement. Sometimes people confuse the two, but they are different from each other. If you are going to write anything (blog post, essay, short story, novel, editorial for the class paper, your cat’s biography, etc.) it is useful for you to know what plagiarism and copyright infringement are, how they are different, and how to avoid them.

Plagiarism is when you claim an idea as your own, when it is not your original thought. It does take extra effort to give credit for the ideas in your writing that are not yours, but it is very important. Failing to give proper credit is considered plagiarism. In formal academic writing, giving credit to the original authors is called citing your sources. There are lots of different guidelines for doing this. If you want more information about what plagiarism looks like, you can take a look at this page created by the University of Arizona Library, opens a new window. If you are already working on a project, and your teacher has asked you to use a specific citation format (MLA, APA, or if your teacher is really nerdy, Chicago Style), you can find books to help you at the Pima County Public Library, opens a new window.

Plagiarism in the academic world is bad, is frowned upon, is underhanded, is considered sneaky, vile, and lazy, but it is not illegal. Copyright infringement is actually illegal. Someone can take you to court if you infringe their copyright. When a person has the copyright for a particular work, it means that they are the only ones who can copy and share that work, or give permission for someone else to do so. Companies can own copyright, too. To have a copyright, all you have to do is to create something in a fixed, or tangible form. You probably already have copyrights! Once you write up an essay for a school assignment on a piece of paper, you own it. You have copyright over those exact words. When you type out your assignment on a computer, that counts as a fixed tangible form also. Anything posted on the internet also counts. Because copyright is part of the legal system here in the United States, it gets far more complicated and detailed than the simple definition I give here. If you’re curious about the different ways copyright is handled here in the United States, you can find out more details by looking at this web activity made available by the Library of Congress, opens a new window.

So why the rules?

Rules against plagiarism protect academic integrity.

Laws against copyright infringement protect what the United States Constitution calls “The Progress of Science and useful Arts.” The purpose of the laws is to help culture and art flourish and progress by encouraging creators to create. They do this by protecting a creator’s ability to make money and profit from their work.

So, young creator, take that golden ticket and write!

—Contributed by Victoria Salajko, Library Associate, Wheeler Taft Abbett, Sr. Library