How Do You Know If You’re Plagiarizing?

Ever wonder if a line from a book that you quoted in your report counts as plagiarism? Or if you’ve unknowingly violated an author’s copyright? The answers are here – and they might surprise you.

Editor’s note: Ian Smith was a contributor to this article.

 Do you plagiarize?

Short answer: If you’re bothering to read this, probably not. I’ll get to why. First, though, some definitions.

What is plagiarism? defines plagiarism in two ways: 1) using another’s words or ideas as your own without properly crediting the source, and more seriously 2) a deliberate act of fraud – using someone else’s work and then lying about it.

LegalZoom points out that plagiarism can also be a federal crime when it infringes on an author’s intellectual property rights – usually a copyright.

What is copyrighted work?

As soon as you create any original work (story, joke, song, idea, research) and record it – in a book, article, document on your computer, song, or anything tangible – you own the copyright, and US law grants you the rights to that intellectual property. No need to apply for anything or even use the © symbol – although you can. You own it the moment you record it.

Note: copyright protection applies not only to works you “publish” – songs you actually record, articles you actually have published in a magazine, jokes you actually sell to The Tonight Show. As soon as you write anything original – even just in a Word file on your computer – you can consider the material copyrighted.

What is Fair Use?

So any original work (including an original idea) by an author enjoys copyright protection within US law. That means you can’t copy passages from a book and drop them into your own essay without citing and crediting the source.

But the Fair Use doctrine of US copyright law allows you to quote, paraphrase, summarize or otherwise refer to copyrighted work without permission from the author – as long as you cite the source – so that you can comment on it, criticize it, use it in your own research, use it to teach, or for a number of other purposes.

So, are you plagiarizing?

I stated earlier that the chances are you’re not committing plagiarism – even unknowingly. Two reasons. First, as explains, it’s an act of fraud that involves stealing and lying. You’d have to hear or read an idea or paragraph or essay from someone else, and then pass it off as your own work. And if you cared enough to look into what constitutes plagiarism, you’re probably not guilty of it.

Second, as you can see from the Fair Use doctrine, as long as you credit the source, you are allowed to use (a limited amount of) that material in your own work to comment on it, criticize it, teach it, or for several other reasons.

Smart guidelines to follow…

So, you are probably not even accidentally plagiarizing or otherwise infringing on another’s copyright. But just to make sure…

1.     Cite sources for works you quote

That means, at minimum, author name and the title of the work.

It’s also helpful to note the date of publication and (particularly if it’s a book) the page numbers where you are pulling the material. But that’s up to you.

2.     Cite sources for works you paraphrase or summarize

Again, give at least the author’s name and the work’s title. And when you paraphrase, it can be even more important to cite page numbers, because if you are only paraphrasing your readers might want to investigate for themselves what you’re claiming the author writes.

3.     Give credit for others’ ideas you are using

Yes, even original ideas are copyrighted and can be “plagiarized.”

Example: author David Bach created what he calls the Latte Factor. The idea: if you simply gave up your latte or caramel macchiato each day, you’d save about $5, and at the end of the year you’d have upwards of $2,000 – enough to fund an Individual Retirement Account!

Now, if you describe a similar coffee factor or Starbucks factor in your own work – and don’t credit Bach – you are probably violating his copyright of that original idea. So credit others for their ideas when you refer to them.

4.     Don’t quote or paraphrase too much of copyrighted work

One way to land on the wrong side of Fair Use is to quote so much of another author’s work – or paraphrase so many of the author’s ideas – that you’re still essentially stealing the material.

And the lines here aren’t completely clear – it’s a judgment call. You can quote a few hundred words – say, a page or two – of a book or essay in your own work. You cannot, however, publish an essay that starts, “Here’s a great essay I read,” and then drop in another author’s entire work.

5.     Ask for permission if possible

Getting an okay in writing from an author, editor or publisher is a great way to be sure you’re on the right side of the line. Usually it’s not necessary, though, if you follow the other rules.

6.     Go out of your way to credit anyone whose ideas you refer to

It’s always safer to give credit. It’s also the right thing to do.

7.     Don’t republish another author’s articles

In the Internet era, it’s easy to copy and paste copyrighted material off of a web site and put it into your site or article. While some copyright holders might be ok with this, you should err on the side of assuming that this will not go over well with the originating site owners and their copyright.

So do not, for instance, copy an article and publish it on your web site, even if you keep the original author’s credentials in tact. This could be violating the owner’s copyright. If you really want or need to do this, see suggestion number 5.

8.     Don’t put copyright material onto other web sites

Related to suggestion number 7, you should also not copy and paste potentially copyrighted material into another web site’s discussion forum or comment board. This puts the site which you are visiting into a potentially problematic position – if the owner of the article you copy were to see the article you copied into that site’s discussion forum, he would have a legitimate reason to file a complaint with that web site for violating his copyright even though that site didn’t actually commit the act of plagiarism.

You should avoid doing this as a common courtesy if nothing else.

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.