Intellectual Property, Accidental Plagiarism, and How to Avoid Common Pitfalls

I’m not trying to get into a bunch of crap publicly – I have my hands full right now with basically three full-time jobs, so I’m not naming names in this post. [1] But I feel like as a writer, editor, writing tutor/coach, former English teacher, and erstwhile journalist, I should maybe do this PSA for bloggers and denizens of social media who mean well but just don’t actually understand what plagiarism and intellectual property theft are, and so they are not aware of when they are guilty of it.

Now not all copyright infringement is plagiarism and vice versa, and I can’t possibly cover all of this in a few minutes. I also have no idea if anybody even cares lol, but from 10+ years of teaching writing to college students and over two decades tutoring and editing, I have a fairly good idea what the major misconceptions tend to be. And I see the results of these misconceptions every day online, from a huge variety of site contributors, business owners, and bloggers who are breaking the law and don’t even know it.

Plagiarism is bad manners and bad juju.


Here’s the thing — most student writers who got in trouble for plagiarism when I was teaching were doing it accidentally. They did not intend to commit fraud by passing off someone else’s ideas and words as their own. They just didn’t understand what did and didn’t count as plagiarism and what was required for proper, responsible citation.

Is a fledgling blogger with a small audience going to end up in court for not putting quotation marks around two sentences in their blog post? Not usually, no. But anybody blogging or doing research to write product descriptions or whatever has just positioned themselves as a professional. If you’re writing online, you just signed up to be subject to the rules. Ignorance of the law is no excuse and it will not protect you from takedown notices, demonetization, lawsuits, and/or the contempt of readers and other creators in your online communities.

Similarly, site owners who copy/paste huge chunks of text from another site and think it’s ok because they put the site’s URL at the bottom of the page are usually not trying to violate copyrights or steal intellectual property. Nevertheless, even accidental plagiarism can be considered fraud in academic contexts. And it can ruin your writing career and reputation in non-academic contexts, even if you never get sued. It can destroy your brand or channel fast if your platform removes your content or demonetizes yo, or Google decides they’ll never serve your ads again.

Here’s the simple definition of copyright infringement quoted from the
FAQ-Definitions” section of the U.S. Copyright Office’s website:

[C]opyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.

That’s it. And you should be aware that when it comes to intellectual property and plagiarism, what counts as under copyright absolutely does extend beyond ideas to include organization, phrasing, and sentence structure.

So you think you’re fine to not cite or quote because you changed a few of the words? You’re probably wrong.

You didn’t think the owner would mind? Doesn’t matter.

You didn’t earn any money from it? Doesn’t matter.

You didn’t see a copyright notice anywhere? Doesn’t matter.

You made it really clear who the work belonged to? Doesn’t matter.

You put the author name and title of the source material at the bottom of your web page? Doesn’t matter. A single citation usually can’t stand for a whole paragraph, never mind a whole page.

You saw the picture on Google and didn’t know it belonged to somebody? Doesn’t matter.

You wrote “no infringement intended” below the video of your favorite song you uploaded to Youtube? Doesn’t matter.

So all these ultra-common defenses folks put online every day? None of that matters. It only matters that you reproduced work you didn’t own the rights to without permission. The copyright holder controls reproduction and distribution. That’s what copyright *means,* that they have the right to copy it and nobody else does without permission. Whether you intend infringement or not is pretty much beside the point.

What about fair use? Well, that’s a real thing, but it’s often misunderstood. Not everything is fair use, and lots of people assume way too much about it without the reading the details. From “More Information on Fair Use” from the U.S. Copyright Office website:

Section 107 of the Copyright Act . . . identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use. 

Note that word “may.” It depends. Natalie Mootz at explains the four factors they consider in plainer English:

What you’re using the content for — [whether] commercial or nonprofit . . . and whether you’re adding something new to the original IP.

The nature of the content — [creative work] can violate fair use more often than . . . factual work (like reviews).

How much content you’re using . . .

How your use impacts the value of the original work — [e.g.] displaces sales . . .

To make it more complex, experts don’t always agree on what does and does not constitute fair use. But putting up a whole song on your Youtube channel or distributing a photocopy of a book that’s under copyright will almost never fall under fair use. Neither will copy/pasting big chunks of text from some other site.

It’s for educational purposes, you say? Just saying that doesn’t make it fair use. But let’s say you are teaching a course at an accredited university and putting an author’s words in a handout in a clear case of educational use. **You are still required to cite and attribute properly** and **you are still limited as to what proportion of a work you can include.** You still can’t just copy whatever you want.

And even if you use only a small portion of another person’s intellectual property in a manner that would normally be ok, you can still be guilty of plagiarism if you didn’t make it crystal clear though proper citation and attribution whose ideas and words were whose.

Common misconceptions & trouble spots

Copy/paste. Lots of people think you can copy anything you find online as long as you link to it and give the author’s name. This is not true.

Paraphrasing and summarizing. Lots of people think that if they change a few words in the original source, that info is now in their own words and so they don’t need to cite their source (false) or use any quotation marks (often false). This is a fake example:

Born of poor parents at Cologne, he entered the Premonstratensians at Steinfeld at the age of twelve; they first sent him to finish his studies in a Frisian monastery, then received his profession and made him their sacristan. This duty was particularly agreeable to Herman Joseph.The child of poor parents in Cologne, he entered the monastery at Steinfeld at the age of twelve. They sent him to finish his education in Frisia, then accepted his profession and made him their sacristan, a job he found particularly agreeable.
Englebert, Omer. The Lives of the Saints. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1994, p. 136.XXX PLAGIARISM XXX

Even if you write a proper paraphrase – and this is not one – you still have to cite for ideas and arguments that aren’t your own.

Common knowledge. Yes, it’s true you don’t have to cite for stuff that’s common knowledge, but if you’re using their words, that suggests you didn’t know it yourself originally, which would suggest it isn’t common knowledge! Common knowledge is stuff like “Columbus sailed in 1492.”

But let’s pretend for the sake of argument that all of the information in Englebert’s original can be safely called “common knowledge.” (This isn’t necessarily true, but let’s pretend.)

This would still be violation of copyright. It’s still passing off someone else’s work as your own fraudulently because it follows Englebert’s organization of the information exactly, down to the sentence structure, for one. Plus, changing a few phrases to their synonyms is **not** paraphrasing. These are not your own words and you don’t give credit to the author of the words, so this is theft of intellectual property. You don’t have to cite common knowledge, but you do have to cite for the way it’s presented if you use that presentation.

Finally, even if we all agreed that word-for-word segments like “poor parents” were not sufficiently distinct to warrant using quotation marks, we wouldn’t all agree the same was true about the phrase “particularly agreeable.” That should be in quotation marks. (Really, the whole thing should be totally rewritten with proper paraphrasing – and then *cited* as well.)

Real example:

It got it’s [sic] beginning in an abandoned brick yard on Dumaine Street in New Orleans. This was a place for Vodou Queens to gather and hold rituals.Red brick dust got it’s [sic] beginning and associated power in an abandoned brick yard on Dumaine Street in New Orleans. This was common place for Voodou Queens to gather and hold ritual.
Gypsy Vodou, “Red Brick Dust,” Gypsy Vodou. 5 April 2012.XXX PLAGIARISM XXX

This is theft of intellectual property. Inserting a phrase and changing some spelling makes no difference to that. This takes the words and the sentence structure of Gypsy Vodou’s copyrighted blog post. (It even preserves the apostrophe error.) The writing here is Gypsy Vodou’s but it’s being passed off by someone else as their own work. That’s fraud. And this fraud appears on a commercial website. Remember those factors? [2]

Wikipedia. You still have to cite, quote, and paraphrase properly if your info came from Wikipedia. If you present it as your own work, it’s fraud and plagiarism because you did not do the intellectual labor of writing those words. Somebody else wrote them. Just because it’s not signed doesn’t mean you can take it and act like you wrote it.

Abramelin oil, also called Oil of Abramelin, is a ceremonial magic oil blended from aromatic plant materials. Its name came about due to its having been described in a medieval grimoire called The Book of Abramelin written by Abraham the Jew (presumed to have lived from c.1362–c.1458). The recipe is adapted from the Jewish Holy anointing oil of the Tanakh, which is described in the Book of Exodus (30:22-25) attributed to Moses.This is a cermemonial magic oil blended from aromatic plant materials. Its name came about due to its having been described in a medieval grimoire  called The Book of Abramelin written by Abraham the Jew (presumed to have lived from c.1362–c.1458) who was a fmaous Kabbalist. The recipe is adapted from the Jewish holy annointing oil of the Tanakh, which is described in the Book of Eodus (30:22-25) attributed to Moses.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is abramelin-wiki.jpgThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is abramelin-plagiarism.jpg
Abramelin oil,” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Sep. 2019.XXX PLAGIARISM XXX

Misspellings and typos don’t somehow make this original material that doesn’t need citation and attribution. Without it, this is plagiarism and fraud. Right there on the Wikipedia page it reads:

Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use. . .

You have to abide by those terms and the conditions of the license. Creative Commons does not mean “take whatever you want and put your name on it.” You have a legal and ethical responsibility to learn the law and follow it.

There are more examples from the same person’s product descriptions, but I think I illustrated the main things I wanted to illustrate in a post dealing with only a couple of facets of copyright issues and intellectual property. At least I hope I hit some of the biggest misconceptions I see among writers. But please do let me know if you think I missed something big or if anything is confusing.

There are always going to be people like this who straight up steal shit and just think they have a right to because reasons. But based on my experience as a writer, editor, and teacher, I really do think that most cases of copyright violation and plagiarism are due to ignorance, not a desire to deceive or defraud. And to be fair, even established companies who deal with this stuff all day every day can be mistaken about the laws if they aren’t making an effort to keep up.

But some creators *will* take you to court over something you think is small, even if it was an accident. And you can still be found in violation of copyright statute even if your imitation was subconscious. Just ask Katy Perry and George Harrison.

So how do you avoid committing accidental plagiarism?

Know the laws. There’s good info out there designed to break it down. Here’s a good one aimed at bloggers with an emphasis on images. It even goes into how to find free ones you can legally use.

Understand what paraphrasing is and isn’t. If you’re like most Americans under the age of about 50, you weren’t really taught this in any particular depth in school unless you went to college, and maybe not even then. Review a few university writing center sites for free examples, handouts, and refreshers. Lake Forest has one here. Purdue Online Writing Lab has one here (and also has resources on pretty much every writing issue or question you can imagine, including using quotation marks, formatting bibliographies, etc).

Check your assumptions about your audience and your ethos. If you think you need to always sound like the final authority who has all the answers on everything and like everything you type sprang out of your head fully formed in order to have credibility… well, you’re just wrong. Your readers aren’t stupid, and most of them are not reading only you. They know you didn’t invent whatever and that other people have also written some things. They want to read your perspective, but that doesn’t mean they all drank your Kool-Aid.

You know how I’ve always found out when my stuff’s been plagiarized online? My readers have told me. And they’ve told me what other books and sites so-and-so also plagiarized. ‘Cause my readers tend to be pretty smart (and more up to date than I am with online stuff!) and chances are yours are, too, if you haven’t driven away all the discerning ones with lame BS. Don’t insult their intelligence by pretending you weren’t just looking shit up at the Lucky Mojo archives. And don’t waste their time by copy/pasting freakin’ Wikipedia articles into your product descriptions.

When you acknowledge your sources, you’re positioning yourself as a member of a community and as part of a conversation. You show that you’re respecting the intellectual property of others and you’re leaving a trail to help those researchers who come after you. You’re helping your readership learn more and draw informed conclusions. It doesn’t make you seem less authoritative. It conveys that you’ve done your research and listening and studying and haven’t just crapped out all these half-baked opinions and assertions.

If you’d like to see good examples of what responsible attribution with significant chunks of info from other sources looks like, see pretty much any post at New World Witchery. You’ll find summary, paraphrase, quotation, in-text and parenthetical citation, and all-around excellent practices for responsible research and writing there.

ETA 6/6/20: If you’d like to see a discussion where an author instructs a blogger on what proper citation, quoting, and paraphrase look like with examples from her own works that the blogger is citing, see this forum post at Lucky Mojo. [3]

Take and keep notes. In addition to the whole plagiarism thing, not keeping track of or referencing your sources for tips and tricks and stories makes you a shitty folklorist. So if you’re even peripherally involved in folklore, folk magic, popular religious practice, etc. and you don’t take good notes as you research, you’re seriously freakin’ doing it wrong. If you don’t know where you got your recipes or heard about this weird usage for oak leaves or got told what color to use for something, you are just totally missing the entire damn point and I don’t know what else to tell you ’cause you’re hopeless! 🙂

Among other things, taking good notes means:

Do not just copy/paste a source into your file injudiciously. This is how probably 75% of accidental plagiarism happens. Weeks or months later, you might not remember which bits of your notes came from where. Summarize, condense, and paraphrase to create your notes as you go. Include page numbers if applicable so you can find it again later.

Use quotation marks if you do use the original words anywhere, and be very careful to place them properly and to quote precisely.

Keep a bibliography with all pertinent publisher and author info.

Don’t write your paraphrases and summaries while you’re looking at the original. Close it out or set it aside and try to write from memory/your understanding immediately, while the info is still fresh, in your own words.This decreases the likelihood you’ll borrow too much of the author’s words or structure.

When in doubt, cite. Not sure if it counts as common knowledge? Play it safe and cite. Not sure if those two words you used that your source also used mean you need to cite? Play it safe and cite.

Limit quoting/paraphrasing/borrowing. Use outside material judiciously. You should be posting because **you* have something to contribute. The rule of thumb in uni settings was that no more than 10% of your essay or article should be the words/ideas of someone else. Obviously this can vary depending on all contexts and work/genre etc. but if you find you’re really just posting so your friends can read the same cool section of something you just read, well, maybe you should just post a link to the original instead. Remember that one of the elements courts weigh when determining whether something is fair use or not is *how much of it you used* compared to how much is your own original contribution.

Reread/edit your own work critically. If you write regularly, you know what your voice sounds like. If you read something that doesn’t sound like you, it probably isn’t, and that’s a red flag to check for citation/quotation issues.


[1] But some of you who’ve been around here a while will have a good guess ’cause we’ve been here before with this person. And I’m going to email the people whose intellectual property was stolen here and tell them where it is in case they want to pursue it.

[2] And this person has had takedown notices before and either doesn’t know how to Google the law or else just doesn’t give a crap.

[3] Pretty much all plagiarism roads in hoodoo lead back to Lucky Mojo. No idea how many times I’ve found someone plagiarizing, thought I found who they plagiarized, got ready to tell that original author so they could pursue legal measures, and then realized that author also plagiarized cat yronwode. Y’all, it’s ridiculous.

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