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About Writing Right: The Blog


I ran across someone who wanted to know if he'd be commiting plagiarism by copying and pasting someone else's work into an online paraphrasing tool. Now, whenever I come across forum questions about plagiarism, I'll bet the farm that some horrendous answers follow. This day was no exception. Here's how I replied.

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Wow! I can't remember when I've seen so many absolutely ridiculous—and thoroughly wrong—responses! Did you draft your question by the light of a full moon? If so, I think you'd better send out the hounds because the vampires are flooding the countryside!


Seriously, to all those geniuses who haven't yet learned how to read and assumed that you, the questioner, are talking about writing research or academic papers, you're acting out of ignorance and slothfulness. It's like assuming the questioner is using a Xerox machine to make paper copies of a work and gluing them to his computer screen with wallpaper paste. Is it possible? Sure. Is it a given? Of course not. Wake up, you other "respondents." School is out. You get no points just for showing up! Or for shooting from the lip!


Copying and pasting existing text into a paraphrasing tool or any other software is not plagiarism. Never has been; never will be. Nor is writing out a favorite copyrighted poem for your personal inspiration or copying sections of a copyrighted book to study or to use in a classroom setting. Like, duh! Have any of your "genius respondents" read the copyright office's definition of plagiarism and what falls under the act? Obviously not. You might want to inform them that the information is free and widely available at www.copyright.gov. They should steal a couple minutes from their oh-so-busy schedules and read what the law actually says before opining.


In short, plagiarism has nothing to do with copying and pasting anything. It has nothing to do with "stealing" other people's ideas, either, since ideas can't be copyrighted, of course! In fact, it has nothing to do with copying and nothing to do with pasting anything into a paraphrasing tool at all. Copying and pasting don't constitute publishing. Furthermore, if the paraphrasing tool spits out a revised version of the original text (albeit machine-generated) so that it is substantially different than the original, it's not plagiarism. It's research and writing.


So, what is copyright infringement in a nutshell? It's publishing someone else's work word-for-word (or close to it) and making it appear as if the republished work is your own. Okay? Clear enough? In other words, it's stealing. There are numerous exceptions to that general rule, and some caveats of which to be aware. I'm no attorney, and I'm not offering legal advice. (Whew!) If you want that, you can find it easily enough. Who I am is someone who has been publishing for nearly half a century in all media, on all subjects, in all types of works. As such, I have had to learn what plagiarism is and what it isn't. I'm so glad you asked your question here and sorry that you received such hideous responses. At least, your question shows your concern, which is far more than I can say about many of the respondents and the answers they regurgitated.


With that said, you should realize that copyright infringement can be a thin line to walk. What's obviously plagiarism to one person may not be so obvious to another. Similarly, what's rewritten or reworked material to one author may not appear to be so to the author of the original text. In those cases, the matters are generally resolved only through legal action. And, that brings up the point: Is it worth it? As one of your more lucid respondents pointed out, the way to avoid any semblance of plagiarism in publishing someone else's work is to credit that work. Cite the author and the original publication in which the work appeared (where you found it, most likely), and keep your cited material within the realm of common sense. You can't copy a 60,000 word manuscript world-for-word, republish it with credit to the author, and expect to get away with doing so. Again, the U.S. copyright office can be of assistance here.


But, getting back to your original question, the mere act of copying and pasting something into a tool that converts the original text into some sort of rewritten copy is nowhere near plagiarism. It's what you do with that converted text--that is, whether or not you publish it--that determines whether or not the question of plagiarism may spring up. No publication? No problem.


I hope this helps clear the air that so many other respondents have worked so hard to foul. Shame on them! And thanks for those few respondents who actually took your question seriously. They know who they are.


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available in eBook, paperback, and hardcover formats at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack

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