Plagiarism is no joke: Protect your integrity in the workplace

Plagiarism is no joke: Protect your integrity in the workplace

Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention sparked a national conversation about plagiarism. Plagiarism is the practice of taking someone’s work or ideas and passing it off as your own; while there’s no criminal law against it, a creator can sue a plagiarizer in court for copyright infringement, trademark violation, or fraud. Moreover, plagiarism is considered a serious ethical breach in many professions, and has led to public discrediting of celebrated journalists and academics such as Jonah Lehrer and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

No matter what field you’re in, you need to know how to avoid plagiarizing someone else’s work. Thanks to the explosion of company websites and blogs, more businesses than ever are publishers. Reproducing copyrighted content without taking a few necessary steps can damage the reputation of a company and result in legal action—and that’s just one type of common workplace plagiarism. Read on for a primer on professional plagiarism and how to avoid it.

Understanding copyright law

Nearly every published material is protected by copyright law even if you don’t see a copyright notice. This includes articles, blog posts, books, films, and photos, as well as websites, computer programs, databases, proposals, promotional materials, architectural works, architectural and technical drawings, manuals, training materials, technical publications, and newsletters. Only a few types of materials other than your own creations can be used freely, including:

    • Compilations of readily available information, such as phone directories
    • Commonly known facts that can be found in many sources, are not the result of original research, and can be commonly observed, such as, “The U.S. has 50 states.”
    • Works licensed for free use, works in the public domain, or government works (these sources usually still have to be properly cited)

Charges of plagiarism on social media can discredit a company’s brand. When pursued legally, the consequences of copyright infringement can be severe. Courts look at a number of factors, including the nature of the copyrighted material, to determine if intellectual property was used fairly, whether it was used for commercial reasons, and how the use impacted the original creator. Fines for stealing someone’s work by accident can range from $750 to $30,000 for each work infringed, plus attorney fees and court costs. The penalty for stealing someone’s work intentionally can be as high as $250,000 per offense and can result in imprisonment for up to five years.

Different types of workplace plagiarism and how to avoid them

  1. Publishing copyrighted images, videos, or other materials without permission or citation

    Possible consequences for an employee: Damaged reputation, disciplinary action

    Possible consequences for the company: Damaged reputation, legal consequences

    How to avoid it: When searching for Google images, click on the “gear” icon to the right of the search options. Click on “advanced search,” scroll to the “usage rights” section, and select “free to use, share or modify, even commercially.” When purchasing images or embedding videos, study the license to understand how it can be used. If unsure, contact the copyright holder, explicitly ask for permission to use the material, and document the interaction.

  2. Reproducing content word-for-word and/or failing to cite a source

    Possible consequences for an employee: Damaged reputation, disciplinary action, legal consequences

    Possible consequences for the company: Damaged reputation, legal consequences

    How to avoid it: Be meticulous when researching by always putting quotations or slashes around any text you copy and paste and attaching a source. Consult many different sources, inject your own voice and personality into your writing, and whenever possible supply a citation as well as an attribution within the text. (Example: “According to Kate Johnson, author of Bat Habitats, less than 1 percent of bats carry rabies.”) Acquaint yourself with the factors used to determine fair use under copyright law. Fact-check articles and blog posts before publication.

  3. Stealing someone’s design, work, or proprietary coding

    Possible consequences for an employee: Damaged reputation, disciplinary action or loss of employment, legal consequences

    Possible consequences for the company: Damaged reputation, legal consequences

    How to avoid it: Sometimes plagiarism and other unethical behavior results from unawareness, hastiness, or poor planning. Educate yourself on copyright issues for businesses, especially in your field. (Architects, web developers, and lawyers all face different issues.) If you’re short on time or ideas for a project, ask your manager for a deadline extension. Nip procrastination in the bud by breaking tasks into doable parts, attacking the part you most dread first, and downloading an add-on such as LeechBlock to block digital distractions during work hours.

  4. Taking credit for a colleague’s ideas

    Possible consequences for an employee: Damaged reputation, disciplinary action

    Possible consequences for the company: Workplace conflict, decrease in morale

    How to avoid it: Even if a colleague offers a preliminary idea that you spend months developing into a full-blown proposal or product, err on the side of giving him or her credit for the initial idea. Recognition builds trust and respect, and encourages collaboration.

Conclusion

All of us are inspired and influenced by other people’s ideas and creations, which is something to celebrate. Furthermore, plagiarism is often a result of carelessness rather than ill intent. But a bevy of online tools make it easier than ever to detect plagiarism. Be scrupulous about attaining permission to use copyrighted materials and give credit where credit is due.

Plagiarism is no joke: Protect your integrity in the workplace

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Plagiarism is no joke: Protect your integrity in the workplace