Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Genealogical plagiarism -- legal or moral offense?

Right out of the chute, plagiarism is not a criminal act. The closest legal involvement is with copyright infringement or violation claims. Certainly, extensive plagiarism is almost always also a violation of copyright. To quote from the University of Arizona Libraries website on Avoiding Plagiarism, "Plagiarism is using others' ideas and words without clearly acknowledging the source of that information." In genealogy, the definition fits exactly. If you copy someone else's genealogical work without attribution, you are plagiarizing the work. To avoid plagiarism, quoting again from the University of Arizona Libraries.
To avoid plagiarism, you must give credit whenever you use:
  • another person's idea, opinion, or theory;
  • any facts, statistics, graphs, drawings--any pieces of information--that are not common knowledge;
  • quotations of another person's actual spoken or written words; or
  • paraphrase of another person's spoken or written words
 You should be aware that using someone's work, even with attribution, will not avoid a copyright violation claim, that is if the portion of the work used exceeds a somewhat arbitrary limit imposed by the fair use doctrine. The Fair Use provisions of the U.S. Code are in Section 107 of Title 17. Here is the Fair Use Statute:
Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include — 
(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.
If I send a copy of my genealogy file to someone and they import the file into their own program and then publish the uploaded file as their own without giving credit to my efforts, even if the uploaded file does not constitute a copyright violation, it is still plagiarism.

Whether or not a work is plagiarized is finally a judgment as to how closely the copy appears to conform to the original. In genealogy we are not usually worried about issues such as style and ideas.  But narratives and histories can be plagiarized just as any other document.

As noted above, I would guess that virtually every institution of higher learning in the United States has some kind of policy on plagiarism. I am told that our local Mesa Community College has computer programs that will quickly determine the plagiaristic component submitted by a student and will show exactly where the information was obtained online.

Plagiarism is theft. It is not acceptable in our present society or according to our generally accepted standards of behavior. No matter how obtained, failure to attribute ideas, or substance to the originator is wrong.

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