Let’s start with the good news: Plagiarism is not illegal. It is highly unethical and should never be tolerated in your eLearning and web content, but plagiarizing isn’t going to land you in jail or even trigger a fine. Copyright infringement … well, that’s a different story. It’s unethical and illegal.

The bad news: You can’t get off the hook for either transgression by pleading ignorance.

What is plagiarism? What are the legal and ethical issues? Here are five tips to help eLearning content creators identify plagiarism and stay out of the murky waters of ethical transgression. (To better understand copyright law, see Copyright Law, Prototypes, and the Five-second Rule.)

1. Any time you use someone else’s words or images without giving that person credit, you have plagiarized. It really is that simple. Whether you intended to copy is irrelevant. Plagiarism is often the result of disorganization or inattention: You mix your research notes in with your writing and lose track of the attribution. It doesn’t matter. As journalism professor and ethicist Steve Buttry says, “I can’t remember anyone ever admitting intentional plagiarism.”

2. If something is in the public domain, using it without attribution is still plagiarism. The song “Happy Birthday” is in the public domain; anyone can sing it, print the words, or feature it in a commercial work without paying licensing fees. If there is no copyright or the copyright has expired, a work is in the public domain. That gets you off the hook for copyright infringement—but not for plagiarism. If the authorship of a work is known, anyone using any part of it must credit the author. Jane Austen’s books are all in the public domain—copyright expires after a specific term, which varies by country and type of work, or 70 years after the death of the creator (in the United States). But anyone quoting even a single line of “Pride and Prejudice” must credit Jane Austen—or be guilty of plagiarism.

3. There is no escape hatch. Many people mistakenly believe that there is a “safe” number of words, or seconds of audio or video content, that they can use before triggering a charge of either plagiarism or copyright infringement. There’s not.

  • Using any number of someone else’s words and passing them off as your own is plagiarism; even with revision, if your work is substantially similar to another person’s work—similar enough to be recognized—it’s plagiarism unless you give the original author credit. Plagiarism is a serious ethical transgression, but it is easily avoided.
  • The false belief that there is a safe number of words or seconds of content that a person can use arises from two common defenses against charges of copyright violation: de minimis use and the claim of “fair use.” De minimis use is the use of such a small amount of a copyrighted work that the court does not recognize it as a copyright violation. Fair use is a section of copyright law that specifically permits some uses of copyrighted works, such as research or classroom use. The problem with both of these is that neither the law nor the courts have provided clear definitions, specific numbers of words, or a number of seconds of content that fall under these defenses.
    An important note: Corporations do not benefit from fair-use exemptions granted for “nonprofit educational purposes,” so anyone creating content for corporate eLearning must be sure to get permission to use any copyrighted work, whether using the entire work or excerpts from it.

4. Plagiarism is deceptive and fraudulent. Plagiarism isn’t illegal, and no one outside the company will ever see the eLearning module, so what difference does it make if a few sentences here and there are remarkably similar to someone else’s content in some other company’s eLearning? Being able to “get away with” doing something unethical is far from a reasonable justification for doing it. We’ve all had the experience of other people—co-workers, bosses, spouses—passing off our ideas or suggestions as their own. It’s infuriating, even if it seems clear that the person truly doesn’t remember the earlier suggestion and is not intentionally stealing the idea. Listen to your mom and your first-grade teacher: Do your own work, and give credit where credit is due.

5. Google is your friend. In the digital age, it is ridiculously easy to avoid plagiarism. If you come up with a particularly clever-sounding phrase, but you have a tiny little suspicion that the seed for that bit of creative genius was planted by something you read, Google it or run it through an online plagiarism checker. If the same phrase turns up somewhere else, revise it or give credit. Keep careful records of your research. If a passage is close enough to someone else’s work that it could raise questions, err on the safe side: Revise or attribute.

People with the best of intentions can still commit plagiarism. Careful attention, thorough editing, and a little help from Google and other digital friends can ensure that your eLearning content is your own work.


Buttry, Steve. “Intent doesn’t matter in plagiarism (because no one admits intent).” The Buttry Diary. 25 July 2016.

Hirtle, Peter. “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.” Cornell University Copyright Information Center. 1 January 2016.

Mullin, Joe. “‘Happy Birthday’ is public domain, former owner Warner/Chapell to pay $14M.” Ars Technica. 10 February 2016.

U.S. Copyright Office. “Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use.” Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code, Chapter 1, Section 107.

Waxer, Barbara. “Copyright Law, Prototypes, and the Five-second Rule.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 11 January 2016.