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:

Continue reading “Intellectual Property, Accidental Plagiarism, and How to Avoid Common Pitfalls”