I have noticed that some members of the community do not understand the scope of plagiarism. This is not a problem unique to CoG, as it is a topic that inevitably arises on any writing site. However, I think from time to time, as new members arrive, it is wise to post a reminder of what plagiarism encompasses. Furthermore, I think a refresher does us all good from time to time.
As a caveat, I shall speak largely in general terms, my goal is to illustrate the scope of plagiarism, not to fully cover the topic in arduous detail.
Simply put, plagiarism is the the theft of writing or ideas. However, plagiarism is not limited to the verbatim taking and stealing of another’s words.
The common context most are familiar with is recycling old exams and passing them off as your own in grade school or university.
But plagiarism extends to the partial theft of language and ideas. What does this mean exactly? It means that when a passage, scene, or story mirrors another work so closely so as to have clearly derived from the original work without a transformative component to it - then that amounts to plagiarism.
Now, there are certain stories that belong to the public domain. These include tales such as the Legend of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Beowulf. These general stories and the characters in them are no longer owned by anyone, and they are free to use as you will. But of course, if Sarah writes a story about Robin Hood, you cannot take portions of her manuscript and use them in your own story of Robin Hood. The right to use a general story concept does not allow one to plagiarize another’s writing on that subject. For example, if Disney made a new movie about King Arthur, then Warner Bros. cannot recast the actors and reuse portions of the Disney script in their own King Arthur movie two years later. Not without purchasing the rights to the script.
The other primary exception where a writer may use another’s idea, within certain limits, is in the case of parody. Parody is presumed to fall within the realm of fair use in the United States. However, the parody must still be transformative in nature and not infringe upon any of the rights of the owner of the original work.
What to take away from this?
Writers have taken inspiration from other writers for generations. However, we must be mindful not to allow our inspiration to fall so short as to collapse into the category of mere imitation and recitation.