By Daniël Eloff
When plagiarism is discussed, the conversation usually focuses on a wide variety of ethical frameworks, literary standards, best practices for quotation and the policies of universities and other institutions. Plagiarism is often punished through internal disciplinary processes, but seldom reference is made to the legal effects outside of universities, schools and other institutions.
Although ethics and best practices are important, plagiarism is not a legal concept in the strict sense of the word. It is not defined by any law or common law. However, the absence of a legal definition does not mean that plagiarism has no legal consequences.
Plagiarism has been discussed in a variety of cases, including cases on copyright and information on product packaging, and the judicial review of government documents. Even if one does not go to jail for plagiarism, it will still leave you holding the baby.
One must distinguish between copyright infringement and plagiarism. As mentioned earlier, plagiarism is not a concept recognised by the law. Instead, it is an ethical or literary standard. To commit plagiarism is therefore not illegal in itself. Violation of the ethical rules against plagiarism does not have economic disadvantages and does not affect your ownership. However, where plagiarism has financial advantages for the plagiarist, it goes hand in hand with copyright infringements, which may have legal consequences and will probably lead to a court case.
Apart from copyright infringement, plagiarism can also be a misrepresentation if you pretend that the work and ideas are your own. Therefore, to prevent plagiarism, a writer must avoid misrepresentation. It should be clear which parts of a text you wrote yourself and from whom you took the rest of the content or ideas. If misrepresentation leads to a legal act or delict, there may be consequences for the plagiarist.
To summarise: Plagiarism may have legal consequences if a third party is harmed by it. One must therefore be careful not to represent others’ work as your own, even if you do not write for an academic journal. As former president Paul Kruger said: “You need to acknowledge your internet resources.”
Daniël Eloff is a legal practitioner at Hurter Spies Inc.
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