Author: jessica.ferris

Jessica Ferris

photo by Colin Lieberman

Jessica Ferris is a writer, performer, and teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. After reading the article “New York University Confuses Filesharing with Plagiarism”, she wrote this response, exploring the process by which copying and plagiarism get mixed up with each other.

So an NYU provost confused filesharing with plagiarism. Many people do. How come?

I have a hunch that one of the contributing factors is the “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” Syndrome.

Lots of copying goes on in primary schools: students copy down words from the board, teachers make copies of the week’s spelling test, administrators make copies of the parent newsletter. But when Miss Winthrop says “don’t copy,” she’s not referring to any of these activities. What she means is: “Don’t copy the work of someone else and try to pass it off as your own.” She means “Don’t plagiarize.”

But her choice of words is understandable, given her audience. “Plagiarism” is a four syllable word with tricky spelling, and understanding it requires abstract thought. How do you explain standard source-crediting practices to a seven year old? Meanwhile, “copy” is a two syllable word with easy spelling, and it refers to a concrete physical action.

I was teaching in an elementary school last week, and I looked up “copy” in the classroom Webster’s dictionary. It didn’t list “plagiarize,” as one of the meanings, but nonetheless, if I had told any of the students not to copy, that is the meaning they would have understood. I think this kind of under-the-radar meaning — the one we took as gospel from our beloved and feared primary school teachers — allows the RIAA and other organizations to so effectively confuse the general public, and even learned members of academia. To many people, “copyright” means “the right to control copying and take credit for having created the source material.”

A Case Study

When I did a Google search for “sue for plagiarism,” the top ten results were all discussions of the same case. The clever folks at decided to make money by using the Internet as a way to spot (and thereby discourage) plagiarism. A teacher can submit a student paper, and Turnitin compares it to its huge database. This database includes text from Internet pages, text from commercial databases of journal articles and periodicals, and text from every student paper an educator has ever submitted.

A couple of high school students whose papers were archived by Turnitin are now suing the company for copyright infringement. This is dizzying enough just by itself, but it gets more dizzying. Look at this blog post discussing the case, and just try to sort out the different meanings of “copy,” “copyright,” and “plagiarism”:

No, better yet, let’s do it together. Let’s look at the first three paragraphs.

First paragraph:

Got a term paper to write? No problem, just fire up the old Internet connection and copy some text from Wikipedia. Of course, in the good old days, you had to copy off of a neighbor or buy a copy of a paper some other student had written a few years ago.

The word “copy” appears three times. The first time it means “reproduce with the intent to plagiarize.” The second time, in the phrase “copy off of,” it means “plagiarize.” The third time it means “a reproduction made to facilitate plagiarism.”

Simply, copy = plagiarize.

Second paragraph:

Hoever [sic], modern technology means more than just new ways to cheat. It also means new ways to catch cheaters. A couple of years ago, many schools started turning to plagiarism checking software like Turnitin. The software includes a large database of documents, and when a paper is uploaded the program checks it against that database.

“New ways to cheat,” of course, refers to his use of the word “copy” in the first paragraph, filling out the nefarious connotation of the word “copy” just a little more.

“Plagiarism” in this paragraph means just what we expect it to, which is to say, just what “copy” meant in the first paragraph: “taking the writings of another and selling and/or publishing them as one’s own product.” (Definition from Have you ever checked out the etymology of “plagiarize,” by the way? It’s interesting: it comes from a root meaning to kidnap or to snare.)

On to the third paragraph:

But here’s the thing. It then adds that paper to the database for future reference. And it doesn’t ask your permission. So a couple of high school students decided to sue Turnitin for copyright violation.

This is getting very confusing! Turnitin makes money because teachers want students to stop copying, but Turnitin copies student papers! So if the copying that cheating students do is wrong, and the copying that Turnitin does is wrong, copyright violation must be just like plagiarism! Right?

Well, wrong. The muddy use of the word “copy” leads us astray.

“Copyright,” means simply the sole right of the creator of a work to say who can make reproductions of that work. The creator can sign this right over to someone else — for example, to a publisher. But copyright, in its central sense, doesn’t have anything to do with who gets credit for creating the work — it’s assumed that the creator of the work should always be credited (thus even when an author assigns copyright to a publisher, the publisher still puts the author’s name on the book).

Things are further confounded because our legal system is strange. See what says (bold emphasis mine):


n. taking the writings or literary concepts (a plot, characters, words) of another and selling and/or publishing them as one’s own product. Quotes which are brief or are acknowledged as quotes do not constitute plagiarism. The actual author can bring a lawsuit for appropriation of his/her work against the plagiarist and recover the profits. Normally plagiarism is not a crime, but it can be used as the basis of a fraud charge or copyright infringement if prior creation can be proved.

See also: copyright infringement

Since it’s difficult to sue for plagiarism, people often sue for copyright infringement instead. As in, “You took credit for having created my work, you dumb depraved hack, but I can’t sue you for that because our legal system is so twisted! So instead I’ll just sue you for having distributed my work without my permission, even though that’s really not the heart of the matter.”


So what does this all mean? It means that people fighting for copyright reform have an uphill battle, because they have to clarify our culture’s ambiguous use of language before we can all participate in the same nuanced discussion.

And while the list of failed campaigns for “No, Guys, Say It This Way!” is a long one (freedom fries, anyone?) our culture does change language use when there are enough people who are passionate about what the change signifies. The words we use to talk about minorities, for example, have changed as a result of civil rights activism.

Personally, I find myself a bit more vigilant about what I say to my students, and lucky for me, there is no shortage of teacher stock phrases. Instead of “don’t copy,” I’m pulling out the less-used but just as effective “keep your eyes on your own paper,” “do your own work,” and “no cheating.” The kids are understanding just fine.