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Anything related to copyright that I've known, as someone who is not a lawyer, goes like this:

"As long as you cite properly, there is no need to worry about plagiarism"

Today I learned that there are copyright laws that apply beyond literary works and creative work like music and movies, to all content relating to academia.

Funnily enough, it distinguishes between facts "known by five or more credible sources" (quoting Boston University) and opinions, the former having almost no copyright, while the latter being subject to more stringent laws.

Here my question is, if there is a thin line between fact and fiction, how do you determine whether a work is plagiarized or not? Also, there is a problem within the realm of fact itself; another source from MIT states that facts widely known like "the Big Bang created the universe" is not subject to copyright or plagiarism, then is that not excluding people who have such poor education that they may not know that the Big Bang created the universe, or literalist Christians who may believe that the Big Bang theory is simply opinion and not in the realm of fact -- do the latter have to always resort to some kind of citation? What about Encyclopedias, which list generally mundane information or outlines of topics -- if I'm an expert in a certain topic, and mistakenly think that one piece of specialized information is part of general knowledge, then am I exempt, due to an internally innocent state of mind, from citing the source of that information? When does expert knowledge become fact, and where do you draw the line between fact and opinion (or even fiction)?

To me the endeavor of applying copyright law or plagiarism rules (which I think are, in general terms, part of the copyright problem) is futile, or will end up being futile for some reason, apart from blatant copy-pasting (which you can always argue around and say "it's an homage"). In other words, all plagiarism rules (and copyright laws in general) should be significantly relaxed as to make this a matter of taste. The US courts don't seem to have an agreement on the strict rules, anyway, so who can say for sure what is plagiarism and what is not?

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    You don't have done your research before asking this question. Plagiarism and copyright violation are two orthogonal issues. The former is about attribution of ideas and research results and is academic misconduct. The latter is about ownership rights regarding a creative work and is a legal offence.
    – user9482
    Oct 26, 2023 at 5:06
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    You are mistaken in that belief.
    – user9482
    Oct 26, 2023 at 5:17
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    @economics: Unfortunately, the answers to the quora question you linked show an inaccurate (i.e., too narrow) view on what plagiarism means and thus come to the wrong conclusion that plagiarism would automatically imply a copyright infringement. Oct 26, 2023 at 5:27
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    Consider works that do not enjoy copyright protection because they are too old, or because they were created by the US government. You're legally free to copy such works verbatim, but claiming that you came up with ideas within them would be plagiarism. In contrast, if you were to post a TV show episode online with a disclaimer that some other company created and owns the show, you would not be committing plagiarism, but would likely be committing copyright infringement.
    – Anyon
    Oct 26, 2023 at 5:32
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    @economics Then your lingo is highly nonstandard. Copyright is a form of intellectual property. copyright.gov/what-is-copyright
    – Anyon
    Oct 26, 2023 at 5:38

1 Answer 1

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Plagiarism is the academic “sin” of presenting others ideas as your own. It is not a legal issue.

Copyright infringement (a legal issue) is literally copying else’s words, drawings, music, etc. without permission. Speaking of facts, they, generally, can’t be protected by copyright but expressions of facts can. A paragraph explaining the Big Bang is not a fact but an expression of a fact.

Similarly ideas (including ideas of others that might be the subject of plagiarism) are not protectable by copyright. A specific explanation of an idea is copyrightable.

If you put someone else’s text in a paper you might infringe a copyright. If you acknowledge the source it isn’t plagiarism. If you paraphrase it is no longer a copyright problem but a paraphrased passage whose source is not acknowledged is still plagiarized.

They are orthogonal.

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  • Not necessarily orthogonal, because there are obvious cases where both rules apply (assuming they are completely separate). Proof by contrapositive.
    – economics
    Oct 26, 2023 at 5:49
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    @economics Your logic is flawed. All combinations are possible (no plagiarism and no copyright infringement), (no plagiarism but copyright infringement), (plagiarism but no copyright infringement), (plagiarism and copyright infringement).
    – user9482
    Oct 26, 2023 at 6:24
  • @Roland Agreed.
    – economics
    Oct 26, 2023 at 6:56
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    @economics What Roland describes is what orthogonal means. Orthogonal means they are different dimensions, it is not a synonym for opposite. Whenever things are orthogonal, you should find cases where they are both "large" and both "small", as well as cases where one is "large" and the other "small"; an example of one of these is not proof that they are orthogonal, rather it is something entirely expected.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 26, 2023 at 13:41

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