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Is Plagiarism Illegal in Wisconsin?

The Legal Repercussions of Plagiarism

It’s back to school time for most students around the nation, and whether they are attending in-person or online classes, there is one issue that applies to all: Plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the act of taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. Many schools have academic integrity guidelines that outline their respective rules and penalties on plagiarism. You have likely heard your teachers and professors warn against plagiarizing someone else’s work in your essays and homework or else you may get in trouble. “Trouble” could mean anything from getting a zero score on your plagiarized work to getting kicked out of school altogether.

However, it’s important to discuss the legal consequences of using someone else’s work and presenting as your own. The WI Department of Public Instruction (DPI) identifies the following acts to constitute plagiarism:

  • Handing in some else's work as your own
  • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving them credit
  • Failing to put a direct quote in "quotation marks"
  • Changing a few words but using the same sentence structure without credit
  • Copying so many words from a source that makes up a majority of your work, whether it is cited or not
  • Taking written content from one language and translating to another (Google Translate or other tools) without citation

What Is Copyright?

A copyright is a type of intellectual property protected under the law that gives creators exclusive ownership of and control over their tangible creations. This includes printed and published works, performances, films or literary, artistic or musical material.

Copyright and plagiarism are similar in that they safeguard creators’ material, but accomplish this in different ways.

Plagiarism intends to give proper attribution to a creator’s work and help the reader identify what is original and quoted or adapted from someone else. Copyright gives creators the power to control their work and decide how it is used and shared. They may license their creations and/or require payments to use or view them. Plagiarism and copyright go hand-in-hand to a certain extent.

Two common copyright actions are the fair use doctrine and creative commons license. Fair use “promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances” according to the US Copyright Office. Creative Commons licenses are "legal tools that creators and other rights holders can use to offer certain usage rights to the public, while reserving other rights.”

Students must be knowledgeable of the types of works they utilize for educational purposes. Certain copyrighted works require more than just attribution, and a violation could result in prison and/or fines. The State Bar of Wisconsin mentions that if the copyright is registered within three months after a work is published or before an infringement, a person may be charged statutory damages between $150 and $30,000 for unintentional infringement and up to $150,000 per work for intentional infringement plus awarded attorney fees. The WI Bar further states that if copyright infringement is committed for financial gain, it is a crime.

Have a Good School Year by Preventing Plagiarism

The First Amendment right to free speech comes with limits, as writing someone else’s content and claiming it as your own could result in a vast range of civil and criminal consequences.

According to the DPI, to best avoid a plagiarism accusation, consider:

  • Consulting with your teacher if you have any questions
  • Taking effective notes about where you are gathering information
  • When in doubt, cite your source (text and images need to be cited)
  • Understand how to paraphrase (write it in your own words)
  • Be sure to determine the credibility of information before gathering and citing

If you were accused of copyright or plagiarism and are facing civil repercussions, we encourage you to consult with our legal team to learn about the best possible options for your unique situation. The Law Offices of Christopher J. Cherella is here for you 24/7 to offer legal advice, guidance and support.

Contact (414) 882-8382 to learn more.