Is it fair? Is it legal?

While attending a national conference, a Michigan State University Extension educator looked forward to hearing the presenter speak at a breakout session. An expert in the subject area, she wanted to know what another expert had to say. When the presenter began talking, the educator stared dumbfounded at the screen when she realized the PowerPoint being shown was her own work. Only the format, title and credits had been changed.

The scenario described above hasn’t happened (that we know of), but could it have? Yes.

In this Internet Age, information – easy access to information – abounds. It’s easy to copy something written by someone else, a pretty photo or a funny cartoon, and paste it into our work. If we do that without citing the source, that’s plagiarism. I’m sure we wouldn’t do this deliberately. We may be in a hurry, find a bit of information that we need and with a few keyboard strokes, it becomes ours. Later on, we may even forget that we didn’t write it ourselves. It becomes incorporated into our work.

There was a time when, legally, information from federal government sources (including the Extension System) was considered within the public domain and therefore freely available for public use – though still with attribution. And even if we did occasionally – and accidentally, of course – use a bit of Extension information without attribution, odds were no one would recognize it. With changes in copyright law and the advent of the Information Age with its search engines and anti-plagiarism software (such as Turnitin and iThenticate), those days are past. Information from federal agencies such as the USDA and land-grant universities legally can be and often is copyrighted. We must cite such sources and obey any copyright stipulations associated with them.

If we use someone else’s work, we have a moral and legal responsibility to cite sources. In fact, if we want to use a large portion of someone’s work, we must ask permission to do so. How big is “a large portion”? It depends. The principle of “fair use” allows use of portions of copyrighted materials in some instances. The Copyright and Fair Use website of the Stanford University Libraries (http://fairuse.stanford.edu/Copyright_and_Fair_Use_Overview/chapter9/index.html) gives a good explanation of fair use and the factors used in deciding whether the amount of someone else’s work we’re including in our own work is considered fair use.

When in doubt, ask permission to quote.

Remember, too, that photos, tables, drawings and other images you find on the Internet are not automatically copyright-free. You must ask permission to use them and you must credit their source or sources.

Citing sources is not just a professional courtesy, it’s the law.

If you’re confused about copyright issues, check out the MSU Libraries Copyright Permissions Center at copyright.lib.msu.edu.

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