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Plagiarism in College Writing

Most people already know plagiarism is not a good thing: it’s an ethical infraction and a violation of a student’s honor code. If caught plagiarizing, students can be punished by the school, get an F on a paper or face some other kind of internal penalty. You may already know that, which is why so many students use sites like Copyscape to check their work before submitting.
However, besides a slap on the wrist from your educational institution, are there actually legal consequences attached to plagiarism – specifically when it comes to college students?


As a student who is tasked with writing multiple papers each month, you may wonder if it’s possible for a plagiarist to get sued or even face criminal action. The answer is: it depends on the nature of the plagiarism.
In a nutshell, plagiarism can become a legal issue if copyright infringement is involved. Copyright refers to a set of exclusive rights granted to any creator of original work. Plagiarism violates those rights in two ways:

  • By copying the work without permission, and
  • By distributing it

That being said, not all plagiarism cases involve copyright infringement. For instance, you could plagiarize from sources that are out of copyright and therefore in the public domain, without actually committing copyright infringement. In the same vein, ideas and facts aren’t protected by copyright but they can be plagiarized. Lastly, copying and reusing short passages without attribution is a type of plagiarism but isn’t really considered a copyright infringement.
To flesh this out further, plagiarism is about whether or not your work is properly cited, while copyright infringement more accurately refers to the re-use of the original work. There’s certainly some overlap to the two issues, which is what muddies the waters in a legal sense. But keep in mind that most cases of plagiarism that are copyright infringements would still likely be copyright infringements even if they had been properly cited.


Copyright infringement isn’t the only thing that can land you in court. If you are higher up on your educational journey and tasked with submitting grants or projects to clients, there are contracts involved that insist the submitted work be original. Plagiarism would be a breach of those contracts and can lead to lawsuits.
In the end, it’s rare to see plagiarism evolve into a criminal or civil matter, especially when it involves a college student. However, it can and does happen.

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