The Past and Future of Plagiarism

Published: 18th August 2009
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Plagiarism is a word that we encounter throughout our lives, during various stages and in multiple environments. 'Copying' was the first manifestation of the word I can remember, sternly used by my kindergarten teacher in reference to a child's wandering eyes during our coloring activities. Many other synonymous words were employed as warnings throughout school - from 'cheating' to 'not properly using citations.'

It wasn't until college that the word 'plagiarism' took center stage: big, bold and red in my university's student guideline pamphlet. It quickly became apparent in a university setting that a person's intellectual property was legally protected and the repercussions for infringing on these protections were to be harsh. Beyond college, out in the 'real world,' plagiarism continued to show up, from the terms-and-conditions of a legal contract to a breaking New York Times' headline.

Just as the word plagiarism tends to evolve in a person's eyes as they grow up, it also takes on new meaning throughout the lens of history. The Merriam-Webster dictionary's definition of plagiarizing is " to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own : use (another's production) without crediting the source."

Although this definition specifically mentions 'ideas or words' it applies to all forms of expression. Drawings, sculptures, stories, songs, poems, technological inventions and scientific innovations have all been the products of human creativity. Just as there have always been laws and regulations to prevent the theft of another person's physical property, there also have been laws to prevent stealing ideas.

In the past, enforcing these laws and spotting plagiarism was fairly simple; the world was smaller and there were fewer ideas in circulation. Today, we face a new challenge: the internet. The internet has been the greatest breeding ground for creativity in human history, acting as the medium through which a unfathomable number of new works are published every day; from the shortest and most informal 'tweets' to 1000 page USPTO patents. Although this boom in creative work has been a blessing, it also has created a large problem in detecting and preventing plagiarism.

It's as easy as copying and pasting another person's words or downloading and re-branding their imagery, video or audio files. Unfortunately, plagiarism has become rampant online and is harder than ever to locate and prevent. Plagiarism appears across various industries, including the publishing, media, scientific and financial sectors. Businesses invest millions of dollars to protect their intellectual property, only to have their money squandered through duplicate content nodes across the web.

Luckily, just as the internet has fed plagiarism, it also provides the technological means to prevent it. Cutting-edge plagiarism checker software and plagiarism detection tools have been developed to locate duplicate content and protect proprietary information. This sort of technology has saved countless works and ideas from being duplicated and dispersed across the internet by locating instances before they spread.

The future of plagiarism and its prevention will rely heavily on the technology that each side embraces. Just as some people will break the law to copy the best ideas out there, we must also utilize any possible means to prevent this from happening.

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