Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

The Difference between Plagiarism, Piracy, and Copyright Infringement

Okay, I know all the lawyers out there are jumping up and down in outrage. Yes, yes, I know that from the point of view of the LAW, plagiarism and piracy are FORMS of copyright infringement. Saying you can quantify the difference between plagiarism, piracy, and copyright infringement is, in legal terms, a bit like saying you’re going to quantify the difference between sedans, coupes, and cars.

But I ain’t a lawyer and this ain’t a legal blog, so I can do what I want ;). And in the wake of today’s brouhaha over Cooks Source magazine’s unfair use of blogger Monica Gaudio’s work, I have seen term “plagiarism” to describe what happened here when this kind of copyright infringement probably falls under the definition of piracy.

Plagiarism is taking something someone else wrote, slapping your name on it, and passing it off as your own work. You can plagiarize the entire work or only passages from it. You can even be plagiarizing if you change some of the words. This is something we’re all taught as early as elementary school, although with varying degrees of enforcement. The thing about plagiarism is that you can plagiarize WITHOUT infringing copyright. For example, Pride and Prejudice is long since out of copyright and therefore in the public domain. If I copy the entire first chapter and put it up on my website with the claim that I wrote it, I’m not infringing anyone’s copyright, but I’m definitely plagiarizing.

So, what Cooks Source did when it appropriated Ms. Gaudio’s article was not plagiarism. This is not to say Cooks Source hasn’t plagiarized OTHER works. There’s some evidence, apparently, that it has. Cooks Source failed to get permission to reprint the article from the copyright owner (Ms. Gaudio), but they did correctly attribute the material to Ms. Gaudio.

Piracy originally meant copying an item and then reselling it as if it were the real thing (think pirated copies of software and you get the idea). In recent years, however, it’s come to apply more broadly to the practice of copying a digital file to a torrent/sharing site so that others can download it. In some cases, this is perfectly legal, even if the material bears a copyright. (I have several stories in free anthologies, for example, that are copyrighted, but available for free distribution. The copyrights clearly state that these works may be redistributed at will, so I have no objection to them showing up on torrent sites. In fact, I’m happy for the exposure–and it amuses me a little to imagine that some people who download them from these sites think they’re getting something they’d have had to pay for elsewhere.) Piracy is a form of copyright infringement, however, when you are giving away or reselling something when you demonstrably do not have permission to do so.

Piracy, then, is what Cooks Source did when it lifted the original blog post (which does have copyright protection despite the fact that it appeared on the Internet and not in a print magazine or book or newspaper) and reprinted it without permission. This is the case even though the blog post is available on the Internet for anyone to read free of charge. Ms. Gaudio does not need to show a loss of income/revenue or that Cooks Source is profiting from the sale of her work to prove piracy/copyright infringement because her exclusive right to determine where and how her content is used doesn’t depend upon whether or not she receives monetary compensation. Moreover, the fact that the article is free on the Internet does not mean that Ms. Gaudio, as the copyright owner, cannot require payment from another party to reprint/redistribute her work. She can, of course, allow the reprinting/redistribution to occur without charge, but if she says she wants to be paid and the other party refuses, she can withhold her permission even though she’s never earned a red cent from previous publication.

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