What is plagiarism, and is it illegal in Australia?


© Copyright Rosanne Dingli - Author Website

Marjorie [not her real name] writes humorous stories for popular magazines and a column for the local paper. In her retirement, she enjoys what she calls ‘tipple money’ for her efforts, stocking up on her favourite prosecco when she gets paid. A glass a night reminds her that not only does she enjoy her writing, but also that it earns her the tiniest and simplest of pleasures.
But a recent phone call from her editor robbed her of at least some of that pleasure, and gave her a niggling sensation of unease. ‘Marjorie, we love your work. Um, but recently ... Look, I’m sure you have no idea you’re breaking the law,’ her editor said, ‘but your last column submission has an entire sentence – full stop to full stop – lifted from an article on the internet.’
The editor went on to say that if someone in the office had not checked, the paper would have been in legal hot water. ‘I’m asking you to rewrite the entire piece, Marjorie, making sure that whatever you consult on the internet, or anywhere else, and is the work or ideas of another person or publication, is either quoted and attributed properly, or at least acknowledged appropriately.’
‘Ideas too?’ Marjorie’s voice was soft – she was chastened, and half glad her slip-up was noticed, since she had done the work in a hurry. It was unusual for her to use someone else’s sentences, even if the information was common knowledge. Everyone knows how to weed a garden, right? Her advice was about lifting weeds roots and all. But yes, she must have lifted a sentence or two from a gardening site without carefully expressing the notion in her own words.
‘There are severe penalties, Marjorie – it’s called intellectual theft, and there is a fine of AU$612,000 if it can be proven that your work was someone else’s … passed off as your own. The publishers of this paper would not have been happy about a court case of that nature.’
‘Well, I’m glad you caught it in time. And thank you for making me aware … I don’t want to get anyone into trouble.’ She knew that if she didn’t have such a nice editor, she would have got the sack, not just a polite warning.
What the editor did not tell Marjorie was that it is very easy to check whether any written work has been plagiarized; that is, written by someone else and passed off as one’s own. Works need not have a copyright sign [©] to be protected. If you did not create it, it's not yours to use.
It is illegal in Australia to steal someone else’s words, whether they are Australian or not, in English or not, old or not, online or not. It is equally illegal to steal music, images, and other intellectual property. Even words on a brochure, or website, or TV advert cannot be lifted and used word-for-word. Simple rearrangement of words is not enough. Everyone knows you can't copyright an idea, but a written concept is not the same thing.
Marjorie did some research. She went straight to her computer and looked up Copyright Law in Australia. Several sites helped… and gave her shivers at the same time. She had come very close to landing the owners of her newspaper on some very tricky legal ground.
Here are some sites she found helpful:
Many university students, writers and family history compilers are aware that knowledge is not free, and that information gathered from any form of publication needs to be treated with respect. There are special software tools that detect plagiarism very quickly, and even a simple Google search can sometimes give results.
If it’s a simple matter of giving credit where it is due, it’s easy to include the name of the original creator. It's not hard to credit a quotation or image with the name and source of its original owner. Images are a case in point; there is a huge bank of free images available in the public domain, so there is no need to poach someone else’s. The age of an image or written work is also important. So checking the sites above for indications of when [and whether] a work can be used is vital.
The best place to go for all the information related to plagiarism, lifting someone else’s work, intellectual theft, and fair use is available on the Australian copyright Council website.

Happy writing!