Is Plagiarism Illegal? Answered

Is plagiarism illegal? The answer to this question may not be as cut-and-dried as you once thought, so read on to find out.

If you write professionally or academically, you’ve probably aware of the dangers of plagiarism. Using someone else’s writing or ideas without proper attribution is considered an ethical infraction. In academic writing, it can lead to failing grades or other punishments from the school. Outside of academia, it can affect your reputation and job prospects.

Somewhere along the way, you’ve probably heard that plagiarism is illegal.

Yet is this true based on current copyright law? Is plagiarism illegal, or is it just a serious infraction in the academic world? The answer depends on the type of plagiarism and where you’re based. This guide examines what copyright infringement is and how it applies to plagiarism, so you can know whether or not this mistake would put you in hot water, legally speaking.

Please note, we are not a legal team or a lawyer. While this information is accurate to the best of our knowledge, it’s not legal advice and doesn’t take the place of advice from an attorney.

Is Plagiarism Illegal? It Depends

Is plagiarism illegal

The truth is that plagiarism is not always illegal. In fact, Cornell Law School states that plagiarism is usually not illegal in the United States but is considered a violation of honor or ethics codes in the educational institutions where the infraction occurs.

Much of the discussion depends on who the plagiarist is and how they went about plagiarising. Technically, the word plagiarism is not mentioned in any United States laws. Instead, the laws apply to copyrights and how they apply to created works. Thus, understanding the legality of plagiarism requires understanding copyright law.

For example, accidental plagiarism and self-plagiarism are less severe than deliberate plagiarism.

What Is a Copyright?

A copyright is a set of exclusive rights that someone who created an original work retains over that work. In the United States, writing and ideas fall under the auspices of intellectual property, and they automatically belong to the creator without any need to file a formal declaration.

If someone takes that work and uses it as their own, they violate copyright law. In this way, failure to cite the original author of a work when using the idea in your own work could put you in violation of the law. You might also be interested in our legal writing jobs guide.

Plagiarism as Copyright Infringement

Is plagiarism illegal?
Copyright infringement can happen even if you use quotation marks and cite the original copyright holder

One form of plagiarism is considered copyright infringement. Using a copyrighted work and distributing it as your own work falls under this category, and in the United States, you can face a lawsuit for this action. 

Interestingly, copyright infringement can happen even if you use quotation marks and cite the original copyright holder. Without their express permission, you could face a lawsuit if you profit from the work that contains their words.

Other Plagiarism Issues that Create Legal Problems

In the United States, plagiarism can also become a breach of contract. Kaavya Viswanathan is one example of this. When the 17-year-old got a book deal for her first novel and a pending sequel, she made headlines, but she again made headlines when she was accused of plagiarising another writer’s work.

While this did not lead to a lawsuit because she rescinded the book deal, being accused of plagiarism ended Viswanathan’s potential literary career. Had she not given back the money from her book deal, she could have faced a lawsuit for breach of contract.

Another example is the story of Craig Grimes, who ended up facing criminal fraud investigations when he accepted duplicative grants while using the same grant proposal. Though his charges ended up dropped, he faced a ban from asking for research funding for a period of two years due to his plagiarism.

Plagiarism Lawsuits Are Rare

Though they are possible, lawsuits about plagiarism in the form of copyright infringement are rare in the United States. Suffering consequences in academic institutions is far more common. Students and researchers can face serious repercussions if they use copyrighted material and pass it off as their own.

However, because academic works rarely bring in money for students, this is usually not considered a criminal offense. Instead, the student may fail the assignment or the class, but they are unlikely to face a lawsuit or legal consequences for copyright violation.

Plagiarism and Copyright Rules in Other Countries

In the United States, getting sued for copyright is relatively rare, though it can happen. However, in some countries, it is much more common, even considered a criminal action.

In India, for example, plagiarizing a research paper put one university vice-chancellor in jail. In Poland, another professor faced three years in prison for plagiarism of a book.  

The idea of plagiarism as a criminal action is still developing in the United Kingdom, but it is becoming more and more common. A proposal is in place to make plagiarizing in college a criminal action in this part of Europe.

The Issue of Public Domain

One concern that can make the legal issues surrounding copyright law challenging to discern is the issue of public domain. Using or referring to work freely available in the public domain isn’t usually regarded as plagiarism, provided you attribute your sources and it’s not for commercial gain.   

Intellectual property rights also have time limits in many countries. This varies from country to country, but in the United States, the following are considered public domain:

  • Any work published before 1923
  • Any work produced by the federal government or its employees
  • For works published between 1923 and 1977, intellectual property protection extends for 95 years after publication
  • For works published after 1977, the rights extend for 70 years after the original author’s death
  • Any work surrendered to the public domain by the author

The expiration of these rights explains why so many indie publishers package up and sell classics as self-published titles on Amazon KDP and other platforms.

Avoid Plagiarism to Avoid Serious Consequences

Though legal issues are rare, plagiarism is still a serious offense, ethically speaking. It is the misrepresentation that someone else’s ideas are your own. The consequences of plagiarism vary by region and industry.

To avoid various types of plagiarism in your writing, including self-plagiarism, consider using plagiarism detection software on work. Popular options include:

After running the work through one of these, check it for paraphrasing of someone else’s ideas. Always credit the original author to protect yourself from the consequences of plagiarism, by including citations, links or other attributions.

We use Grammarly and Copyscape the most. To find out why, check out our comparison of Copyscape vs Grammarly

Is Plagiarism Illegal? The Final Word

So is plagiarism illegal? In most instances, no, but you still need to give proper attribution to the author of any ideas you quote in your writing.

Plagiarism may not be a criminal act in many instances in the United States, but in other parts of the world, it is. Also, it has serious ramifications in both the academic and professional worlds. Avoiding it is your best option when you are learning the ropes of writing.

Need help? Check out our guide to the best plagiarism checkers.

FAQs on Is Plagiarism Illegal

Is plagiarism a crime?

Plagiarism can be a crime if a person is found guilty of copyright infringement, but most of the time it is considered an ethical problem, not a criminal issue, at least in the United States. Other parts of the world, like Great Britain, view copyright infringement and plagiarism differently, so it is possible that it is a criminal action in some English-speaking countries, but not others.

Can you get in trouble for plagiarizing yourself?

You are less likely to get in trouble legally for plagiarizing your own work, as copyright law applies to the works of others. However, in an academic setting, scholars and professors want to see original works, and self-plagiarism can create problems.


  • Nicole Harms has been writing professionally since 2006. She specializes in education content and real estate writing but enjoys a wide gamut of topics. Her goal is to connect with the reader in an engaging, but informative way. Her work has been featured on USA Today, and she ghostwrites for many high-profile companies. As a former teacher, she is passionate about both research and grammar, giving her clients the quality they demand in today's online marketing world.