What is the price of plagiarism?

When someone steals another's words, the penalties can vary widely.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

If you've kept up with the publishing industry lately, you've heard of Kaavya Viswanathan. The Harvard sophomore got a $500,000 advance from publishing firm Little, Brown, and Co. for her book, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." But her own life took a sour turn after she was accused of copying several passages of her novel either directly or indirectly from books by Megan McCafferty, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, and Salman Rushdie. It's the most high-profile accusation of plagiarism in a recent spate of scandals that have implicated a variety of figures in a variety of fields.

Last week, Raytheon CEO William Swanson endured public embarrassment and a pay cut when he was outed for copying some of the rules in his book, "Swanson's Unwritten Rules of Management," from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, humor columnist Dave Barry, and an obscure World War II-era book by W.J. King. A month ago, researchers from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., unveiled their proof that Russian President Vladimir Putin had copied whole sections of William R. King and David I. Cleland's "Strategic Planning and Policy" in his dissertation. Three years earlier, the newspaper industry had suffered a blow when The New York Times's Jayson Blair was shown to have copied or fabricated dozens of his stories.

Whether in the professional world or the classroom, plagiarism appears to be everywhere. And according to experts, it's on the rise.

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"The main reason is the advent of the Internet," says Donald McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University who has studied plagiarism in secondary and higher education for more than a decade. According to his research, 58 percent of high school students admitted to having committed an act of plagiarism in the past year.

"A lot of students in their early education do not get a very good grounding from their instructors about when it's acceptable to use somebody else's material," says Jane Kirtley, who teaches Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. "There's also a sense among students today that if it's something they can find on the Internet, then by definition, they can use it freely without attributing it to anybody."

The Internet provides plenty of temptations for would-be plagiarists, from essay-writing services to millions of web pages. The easy availability of such resources can cloud judgment and lead to misuse or abuse of information. "On the part of students, there's an eerie logic to justify cheating," says Denise Pope, a lecturer at the School of Education at Stanford University and author. "It's three o'clock in the morning, you're exhausted, you've worked hard ... rather than getting a zero, you'd take your chances with plagiarism."

The problem is even more pronounced among honors students, who often believe they have the most to lose when it comes to grades, Ms. Pope says. "Students believe their parents would be less upset to find out they cheated if they get the A in the end," she says. "They sort of convince themselves that this is what needs to be done, even if it's wrong."

How wrong plagiarism is perceived to be, though, often depends on the immediate consequences. At Evanston Township High School near Chicago, students receive a copy of the school's plagiarism policy at the beginning of each school year. "If they plagiarize a whole paper, they get an F for the semester. If it's just a major portion, they get an F for the quarter," says Janet Irons, an aide in the English department. All the school's teachers are trained to use Internet plagiarism-detection services like Turnitin.com, which scans papers for similar passages online.

Professor McCabe says that even in high schools without such a protracted policy, F's or suspensions are often standard punishments for plagiarism. But almost half of the teachers he interviewed say they've observed cheating but have not reported it. "It often comes down to 'he said, she said' proof, and that isn't really enough," he explains.

In New Haven, Conn., the Executive Committee at Yale University hears about 35 cases of academic dishonesty per year, according to Jill Cutler, assistant dean and secretary of the committee. Yet the problem is greater than that figure lets on. "There are lots of professors who read a paper, know something is wrong, and decide not to take it up," she says. "Sometimes people think of it as a 'teachable moment.' But it's a lot of work [to make an accusation of plagiarism], and you don't always find sources to prove it happened."

The average punishment for students found guilty of cheating at Yale is a two-semester suspension, Ms. Cutler says. The average punishment is the same at Ms. Viswanathan's institution, Harvard, where the plagiarism policy is outlined in a one-hour lecture during freshman orientation.

But consequences at other campuses vary. Aaron Albert, a freshman who works in the academic dean's office at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., doesn't pause when recalling his school's plagiarism policy. "There's only one punishment for plagiarism here.... If you're accused and convicted of plagiarism, you're dismissed permanently from the school," he says, "People know - if you're gonna plagiarize, you're taking your academic career in your own hands."

At Haverford College in Pennsylvania, which also has an honor code, penalties are recommended by a student Honor Council and can range from suspension or failing grades to more inventive sanctions, such as a public apology or composing an essay about plagiarism. Such remedies and consequences are based on ideals of education and restorative justice, says Joe Tolliver, Haverford's dean of students. "The process is about helping [the student] see the mistake they made and be reinstated into the community," he says.

That type of early recognition can be important, since cheating can have serious financial and even criminal consequences in other areas of life.

"In an academic context, it's really about shame," says Corynne McSherry, an intellectual property attorney in San Francisco and author of "Who Owns Academic Work? Battling for Control of Intellectual Property." "You might be kicked out of your department, or if you're a student, you might get a failing grade. With copyright, you could be taken to court and have to pay damages."

Though plagiarism is not itself a legal offense, many aspects of the act can be construed as copyright infringement, says Glynn Lunney, a law professor at Tulane University. Because anything written is automatically protected by the Copyright Act of 1976, copiers can always be liable for the harm suffered by a person whose work was copied, he says. If an author has a registered copyright, copiers can be liable for legal fees and damages, which range from $750 to $30,000 per work copied. Those fines can rise to $150,000 if the copying is particularly egregious and willfully done.

"Copyright infringement for moneymaking work happens all the time," Mr. Lunney says, adding that the rule is the same whether it's a case like Viswanathan's or Napster's music file-sharing. "That's what all copyright cases are about - it's always in the moneymaking context."

Still, copyright infringement only occurs when one has copied a substantial amount of another's work, says Rochelle Dreyfuss, a law professor at New York University.

"There's a lot that is not copyrightable, like broad concepts," she says. "Similarly, taking facts is also not taking anything that's not copyrightable. And sometimes, if something's written in a very factual, very stripped-down way, the words might not even be copyrightable."

Copying may also lead to fraud charges - which can carry criminal penalties. "Most publishing contracts have a clause where the purported author of the work promises it's their work," says Lunney. If not, the case can go to a district, or even a federal, attorney.

Yet even in cases that do not reach the courtroom, penalties can be enormous. "Whatever legal remedies are available, at the end of the day, the author's reputation is at stake - and that can be very hard professionally," Lunney says.

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