Plagiarism is an ever-present problem in all forms of writing, but it’s especially persistent on the web. Even seasoned companies have been caught using someone else’s content. Some end up making multimillion-dollar settlements.

You don’t need to be a high-profile company to be affected. Because the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 holds Internet service providers (ISPs) accountable for knowing infringement, offenders may find their websites taken down even without a legal judgment.

Although your chances of facing such repercussions may be slim, if you’re found to be plagiarizing someone else’s work, the harm to your reputation can be indelible. The following information can help you protect yourself by avoiding copyright infringement.

What’s copyrighted?

U.S. copyright law protects any work in a fixed form, published or unpublished, whether it includes a copyright notice or not. (Exceptions are outlined below.)

The harm of a plagiarism charge can be indelible.

It’s a common fallacy that web content is public because it’s easily accessible and often reproduced across sites. In fact, any text, graphics, photos, or other work that appears on the web has the same copyright protection as printed material.

Another mistaken belief, particularly among educators, is that any amount of material can be copied or quoted without permission as long as the original source is cited. Actually, copyright law limits use of others’ material even when full credit is given. Similarly, changing the wording of source material isn’t necessarily enough to avoid plagiarism, especially when original ideas are involved.

Fair use

Fair use law allows limited reproduction of copyrighted material without the need to obtain permission. Fair use is meant to protect the rights of journalists, scholars, and others in critiquing, parodying, or otherwise commenting on a work. What’s considered fair use depends on several factors, including:

  • Use of the material. The key question here is whether the material is being used in a “transformative” way—that is, whether it is used to create new information or meaning. Scholarly review of material may be considered fair use if the intent is to give readers new insight or understanding; even then, quoted material must be limited and properly credited.
  • Potential market impact. If use of material leaves any question as to who the originator is, or if it can be seen as competing with or diminishing the commercial market for the original material, it does not come under fair use. Websites that cull text from other sites may be seen as infringing, even if they provide attribution and links, if it’s determined that such use may affect the commercial prospects of the copyright holder.
  • The amount of material quoted. The law doesn’t specify a limit, but major portions of a work are more likely to be considered an infringement. Even for purposes of commentary, posting or printing large segments of someone else’s work may not come under fair use. Think proportion, not length—quoting 10 lines of a 16-line poem is not the same as quoting 10 lines of a 300-page book.

Public domain

Work that’s in the pubic domain either was never copyrighted or is old enough that the copyright has lapsed. Although U.S. law is a bit complicated, in general government material, works that predate copyright law (e.g., Shakespeare’s plays), and works that are more than 75 years old are in the public domain. However, works published after 1978 are protected for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, making it more difficult to establish when they become public.

Note that facts and information considered common knowledge are in the public domain, but particular ways of presenting information, graphically or in text, are not. Works in the public domain require proper citation; although they can be reproduced without permission, they cannot be claimed as another’s work.

Play it safe

It’s safest to ask permission to use any material you want to reproduce in print or on the web, unless you know for certain that it falls under fair use or within the public domain. You’ll not only know you’re on the right side of the law, you may end up forging a cross-posting agreement with a compatible organization.

See more articles from What’s Your Point?