1.1 Plagiarism in everyday life
You may be aware that people sometimes copy material (such as images or even music) from a variety of sources (such as the internet) without thinking and most of the time there are few consequences to them personally. The owners of such materials often are not aware of who is copying material and do not usually investigate people or sue them for unauthorised use of their copyright. For example, have you ever shared or reposted a joke or meme online? Did you consider the original authorship of the material?
However, in some areas such as business, the art and music industries and publishing, the copyright holders are occasionally involved in suing parties for appropriating content or ideas that have been ‘lifted’.
Can you think of any cases of copyright holders suing parties that you have heard about in the media?
There have been lots of instances reported in mainstream media. One example is the legal battle between Led Zeppelin and the estate of the former guitarist Randy Wolfe from the band Spirit (Bro, 2018). They sued the 1970 rock band Led Zeppelin over the intro riff of the song Stairway to heaven, which the Randy Wolfe estate alleged was lifted from their instrumental track Taurus.
However, in some cases, such as the evolution of modern electronic dance music, the liberal use of samples (vocal clips, drum loops, instrumental runs and riffs) was commonplace and in the early days these would have been used without any clearance of copyright or attribution to the sources for the samples. Take for example, the commonly found drum beats, the so-called ‘Amen Break’ (2021), which is found so ubiquitously in modern music thanks to DJ sampling – many popular music tracks would be unthinkable without it.
Examples of copying material in politics are also well-known: at the beginning of the British involvement in the war in Iraq, a weapons dossier was published that was found to be heavily plagiarised from a US PhD student. Thus what should have been a high-level intelligence analysis turned out to be a ‘cut and paste job’ designed to influence MPs to vote for military action in Iraq (White, MacAskill and Norton-Taylor, 2003).
There may be different standards and expectations around copying material depending on what you are doing, what material you are using, how you are using the material, what conditions exist around the use of the material, as well as the intentions behind the use of the material. For example, while using an image you found on Google images in a homemade birthday card is unlikely to cause you any problems, using the same image in an advert you designed for your small business could lead to litigation and a request to remove the image from your advert. In copyright cases like the Led Zeppelin vs Spirit case, there may be huge financial as well as moral reasons for protecting and claiming work, especially if one party feels the other party has become successful on the back of an idea that was lifted without permission. The example of the Iraq weapons dossier drives home the message that plagiarised material can have profound consequences on society, people’s lives and the direction of history.
The point of this discussion on non-academic plagiarism is that using other people’s content may on occasion be permissible, but passing content and ideas off as your own is a moral and often legal infringement that carries the risk of litigation or some form of reputational damage to yourself or an organisation.
Now that you’ve explored plagiarism in a societal context, you’ll consider it from the perspective of higher education.