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The Many Offenses of Plagiarism: An Overview

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Hubpage's notification to me that several articles have been copied.

Hubpage's notification to me that several articles have been copied.

Stealing Your Intellectual Property

Plagiarism is the bane of many writers. It’s also a reality that cannot be avoided. For more than a decade, I’ve been contributing to several online writing platforms. In that time, I’ve had numerous individuals lift more than a hundred articles and place them on their own blogs or websites.

Some copied the stories with my byline and link to the original article. I’m not too bothered by these. They are, in many respects, giving me credit for the articles. In addition, they may drive traffic to my original article.

It’s the ones steal that your articles and make it their own. This is clearly an act of someone trying their hardest to supply their blogs or webpages with your content. In some cases, they are trying to make a small fortune off your material.

Unintentional or not, plagiarism is something that has to be recognized and dealt with in a proper manner.

One thing is certain about plagiarism and those who commit it; they can be clumped in several groups. There are those that:

  • Lift articles to fill a spot on their blog/website
  • Take the article and put their name to it.
  • Go to great lengths to cover their theft.
  • Use it to cheat on essay assignments for school.

Unintentional or not, plagiarism is something that has to be recognized and dealt with in a proper manner.

What is Plagiarism?

For those that routinely write for print or media, this question is easy to answer. For the uninitiated, however, the term can be best explained as the “theft of one’s writing by another.”

Officially, the term goes even further. The definition from Oxford Language and Google states it’s:

  • “The practice of taking someone else’s work or idea and passing them off as one’s own.”

In other words, it doesn’t have to be people copying an article or book to make it their own . Artwork, songs, photos and mere ideas (if written down) can be plagiarized. Many court cases involving plagiarism had little to do with a written text. In many cases, movie ideas and riffs or chords in a song have become the focus.

In fact, many cases involve what’s been called “Movie Plagiarism” The following are a few examples of this:

  • Sci-Fi writer Harlan Ellison sued James Cameron for plagiarizing a script he wrote for the TV show, The Outer Limits. Ellison claimed that Cameron used parts of his TV script about a human cyborg soldier from the future disguised as a human. Orion Picture, the distributor of Cameron’s Terminator, settled out of court with Ellison.
  • The Matrix film directors, the Wachowskis, were sued for $300 million in damages by screenwriter Thomas Althouses. He accused the two of taking “extensive ideas” from his unproduced script entitled The Immortals.
  • The Stoker estate filed suit against the director of Nosferatu due to its similarities with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Originally, director Albin Grau tried to get permission from the estate, but was declined. Thus, he altered the silent film’s script in hopes of avoiding any lawsuits. They sued anyway).
The misspelling of my name was no mistake. This was done to hide acts of plagiarism. In addition, portions of the article had several words changed, too.

The misspelling of my name was no mistake. This was done to hide acts of plagiarism. In addition, portions of the article had several words changed, too.

There are incidents of plagiarism that have occurred outside the realm of the movie industry. One notable incident occurred in 2006 when it was discovered that a Harvard University sophomore and author had published a novel that contained several passages similar to another author’s books. She had published the book prior to being accepted to the university and had a two-book deal estimated to be around $500,000. She claimed it was unintentional when she wrote it at the age of 17.

Some believed that publishing the book may have led to her being admitted to the university in the first place. Other reports claim that the publishers saw her potential as a writer and sent her to a “book-packager” to “flesh out the story idea.”

And in another field of entertainment, accusations of stolen lyrics, guitar riffs, melodies and beats have surfaced in pop music. Such cases include:

  • Led Zeppelin vs. Spirit
  • Killing Joke vs. Nirvana (which was dropped due to Kurt Cobain’s death)
  • Robin Thicke and Pharnell vs. the estate of Marvin Gaye.
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Some of these cases went to court and damages were awarded. Other times they were dismissed or were eventually settled out of court. Often, plagiarism in the music industry garners a lot of attention. In addition, the plagiarism is apparent to the average listener.

Also, it's often in this realm where the law pertaining to plagiarism plays out for a wide audience.

Plagiarism and the Law

Plagiarism is, in itself, a law term. Thus, it should not be a surprise that such laws exist in nearly every jurisdiction in the country. It’s also in the law books in other countries, as well. Still, they vary in terms of what indicates plagiarism and how it is dealt with.

Possibly the most surprising thing about plagiarism, is that it is not illegal in the United States in most situations. Instead, according to Cornell Law School’s website page entitled Legal Information Institute, plagiarism is considered:

  • A violation of honor or ethics codes; and
  • Grounds for disciplinary actions at one’s school or workplace.

While many laws in other countries will address plagiarism in the same fashion, some don’t.

The site also states that plagiarism, despite being not illegal, can:

  • “Warrant legal action if it infringes upon the original author’s copyright, patent, or trademark.” and
  • “Result in a lawsuit if it breaches a contract with terms that only the original work is acceptable.”

In many respects, the law’s definition and approach to plagiarism makes it murky to interpret. In many cases, accusations of it are not easy to interpret or to prove. In addition, the person that committed it, may not have realized they committed it.

This concept exists within the United States. While many laws in other countries will address plagiarism in the same fashion, some don’t. It’s not uncommon to find rip-off versions of popular movies still in existence around the globe (i.e. Turkish Star Wars).

Plagiarism at School

Most schools, if not all, have policies to deal with plagiarism. And, many of them can be severe. In public high schools, a student caught plagiarizing someone’s work may receive an automatic "F" for the class; be suspended; and (rarely) be expelled.

In college, being caught can lead to expulsion from the course or academic department. More commonly, the student may face expulsion from the entire campus.

This, however, is not limited to students. Teachers, administrators, and nearly everyone involved with academia has been affected by plagiarism as either a victim or a perpetrator.

One such incident that comes to mind is that of a famous historian being caught several times. The late historian and biographer Stephen Ambrose was accused of lifting several sections of paragraphs and footnotes from another historian, Thomas Childers, for his World War II book, The Wild Blue. At first, it seemed like a mistake (Ambrose reportedly stated that in haste he may have forgotten to credit these parts to Childers).

But, more came to light as other reporters began uncovering more acts of plagiarism. Ambrose was a rare breed of historian who managed to crossover to mainstream book sales. In fact, one of his works, Band of Brothers became a highly acclaimed HBO mini-series of the same name.

Teachers, professors, and others involved in academic endeavors can face disciplinary actions from their institutions. Additionally, as what happened Ambrose, being caught or accused of plagiarism can destroy their reputations. And, possibly, they can lose their jobs.

Plagiarism on Writing Platforms

Plagiarism on the Internet is massive and convoluted. In fact, a cottage industry to detect and “support” plagiarism has sprouted (this particular facet can be an article of its own). The problem is that much of the information placed on the Internet is there for anyone to read and copy for their own use.

Online writing platforms are extremely prone to plagiarism. In the wild world of Internet writings, writing platforms come and go. In the beginning, little was done to protect writers’ materials from someone lifting it and putting it on their site.

To combat this, some sites have given the writers the ability to copyright their work and to frequently check texts with a software to find copies of all or portions of it. Some have gone as far to offer writers links to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to report websites that have unauthorized copies.

Still, plagiarism on writing platforms such as Hubpage are common, unfortunately. Many seasoned writers on the site have seen the dreaded red circle c placed next to their articles. In other cases, some of these writers came across websites that had lifted their stories and others. In some cases, the entire niche site was lifted, and rebranded as a their own "unique" website.

The dreaded circle C. This warning lets us know that an article has been copied.

The dreaded circle C. This warning lets us know that an article has been copied.

The modes and purposes of the suspected plagiarizer vary, as well. Due to the nature of the Internet these days, I’ve had people use parts or all of my articles for class presentations by using an online slide program. In these cases, they were not intentionally lifting my work and in most cases, they supplied a link to my original article (not plagiarism).

On the other hand, I’ve had those that intentionally lifted the article to make it their own or go through a process of trying to hide the theft.

The guilty parties tend to do the following:

  • Copy articles from a defunct website (possibly days before it was shut down) and wait a few years before republishing them on their site. This happened twice and involved hundreds of articles originally posted to Helium.com.
  • byline is removed and placed on a blog.
  • The article is copied and hidden in what appears to be a long block of text. The font and color of the text , as well as a lack of breaks between paragraphs, makes it difficult to spot the plagiarized portions of your article.
  • They come from another country where plagiarism rules are lax.
  • The name and portions of the article are intentionally misspelled or changed.

In at least one case, a blogger lifted a post-apocalyptic story about a cat from me; removed my name; and wrote a lengthy bio about how he came up with the idea for the story (update: that blog was removed by the host after I contacted them about this). The original story and the account of this theft can be found on Hubpage (title: Not Stealing My Cat: How a Plagiarist Was Dealt With).

How to Combat or Prevent Plagiarism

First off, let's make something crystal clear: plagiarism is not always intentional. It may result from bloggers looking for material for their site or unintentionally copying portions of someone else’s work without preferably giving them credit to the original writer.

In cases like these, the writer needs to the following:

  • If borrowing a passage from someone else’s work, make sure to name that person.
  • If possible, provide a link to the writer’s original work, especially if you are taking it off the Internet (which is being done throughout this article).
  • Create a bibliography listing your sources. Preferred format is MLA style, unless the writing platform offers its own version (as done at the bottom of this article).
  • Use “according to….” for indirect quotes and indicate who said/wrote a passage as if you are writing a direct quote. If need be, place the publication or writer and date of the article in parenthesis after the passage (i.e. (Bob, 2022) ).

...if you have discovered you’ve been plagiarized, you need to either use DMCA to report the site and use its sample email letter to send to the perpetrator.

To protect yourself from others lifting your work, you need to (much of this pertains to writers):

  • Make sure to copyright, patent, or trademark your material. Luckily writing sites such as Hubpages makes it easy. Places such as Writers Guild of America West (WGA West) offer to do the same at its office (if you happen to live the Los Angeles Area). This is usually temporary and has a fee.
  • If need be, use software to identify any plagiarism of your material on the Internet. There are several programs for this. Or you can
  • Google the title or first paragraph of your text in the Google search engine to find any copies floating around.

Finally, if you have discovered you’ve been plagiarized, you need to either use DMCA to report the site or find out what actions you need to take.

Often, DMCA may have the sites and the violators on file; however, due to the constant growth and proliferation of new blogs and websites, they don’t always have the ability to contact these sites.

In many cases, you’ll have to go through a lengthy process in which you must:

  • Contact the offending owner of the site through any email they supply;
  • Find and contact the site’s domain and web host. These contacts can be found by going through either the website for the U.S. Copyright Office or Whois.
  • And prepare to inform Google Adsense of the offending site. They may help to shut them down.

This is not an easy process. But it is just one way to protect your material. As mentioned, plagiarism is mostly not illegal. But, the offenders can be shut down and you'll be able to reap the rewards that your intellectual property can bring.

Somewhere in this block of text is an article I wrote. Someone plagiarized it and placed in this bizarre post. This is not the first time someone did this.

Somewhere in this block of text is an article I wrote. Someone plagiarized it and placed in this bizarre post. This is not the first time someone did this.

Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Dean Traylor

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