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Avoid fines and embarrassment by respecting intellectual property

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

When you use borrowed text in a document, you are claiming it as your own. Not only is this unethical, but it’s also illegal. Make sure you avoid this mistake.

First, let's test your knowledge.

Which of the following is acceptable?

  • Copying text from the Internet or a book and incorporating it into a document without listing its source

  • Including copies of a document someone else has written in an appendix, or making copies of documents or articles and distributing them without permission

  • Using others’ photos without permission or payment

Answer: None. All of these are examples of plagiarism or copyright infringement, especially in a business environment.


During my career, I've seen many authors and project managers try to commit plagiarism without really understanding why it's wrong. For example:

  • A project manager wanted to include copies of three documents that were not our firm's in an appendix. We discovered one of them was in the public domain, but the others weren’t. They were pulled at the last minute.

  • An editor who was part of my publications team noticed that an author had copied text directly from several agencies’ web sites without attribution. She noticed the lack of citations and the changed text tone, but she also recognized some of the plagiarized text, because she had written it in a former job.

How can I avoid plagiarism or copyright infringement?

  • Avoid using more than a few lines of text from another person’s work, unless you have permission.

  • Use quotation marks, cite your source (or hyperlink), and list as a reference when you use or paraphrase ideas, facts, or statistics that are not common knowledge. Do not change the words and claim it as your own.

  • Do not photocopy and distribute documents published by someone else; this violates copyright law unless you have written permission. The Fair Use Doctrine, which "promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances" does not apply to for-profit companies.

  • Never use Wikipedia as a source, even with citation. Companies or individuals can be held financially or professionally liable if you include plagiarized, incorrect, overly biased, or stolen material from Wikipedia. Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, so it is not a reliable source.

  • Adapt a form letter for your use in requesting permission, and save all copies of approvals and denials.

When is it okay to use someone else’s documents, words, or ideas?

  • If you are discussing common knowledge or generally accepted facts, such as climate change, scientific observations, and historical events

  • If the work exists in the public domain, but you should still cite the source (Note: Publication on the Internet does not constitute public domain!)

  • If you get written permission to do so and cite the source correctly

According to studies cited on, plagiarism is becoming more acceptable in our society. However, it is no less unethical or illegal.

The Penalty? Rejection or Fines!

Every year, graduate schools reject large numbers of their applicants for plagiarism in application essays.

In the business world, most U.S. cases of plagiarism are misdemeanors, punishable by fines from $100 to $50,000 and up to one year in jail. If the offender profits more than $2,500, he or she could face up to $250,000 in fines and 10 years in jail. Don't let this happen to you!

This article is the second in a series about ways to protect yourself and your company legally and ethically by avoiding copyright infringement. Read the first article on avoiding copyright infringement for photos.

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1 Comment

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