How to Avoid Being Sued For Plagiarism

    sued for plagiarism

    Imagine someone to suing you for half a million dollars because you failed to attribute their work correctly.

    It would be a shock, right? But believe me, it’s definitely possible.

    So one of the most important things you can do for your writing career is to learn the rules of attribution.

    Why? Well, for one, failure to follow them could spell a heap of trouble… like getting a court order for half a million dollars.

    Just take a look at the headlines from this summer. Melania Trump stirred up controversy with a speech that bears a striking resemblance to one made by Michelle Obama in 2008, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto faces a 23 percent approval rating following accusations that he lifted almost a third of his law school thesis from other works.

    Plus, it’s a matter of ethics.

    It’s one thing for writers to draw inspiration from past works and the world around us; that practice is encouraged on this site as well as others. But it’s quite another to take someone’s research, data, ideas or images and try to pass them off as our own. It’s unscrupulous.

    Of course, not all cases of plagiarism are deliberate. Some writers don’t know the rules of attribution or think they’ve adequately followed them, only to have another party beg to differ.

    Take this case from The Washington Post, in which an expert in the history of technology accused a freelance writer of plagiarizing one of his early articles. The freelancer claimed she thought citing a book of essays — in which the tech expert’s article was included — was sufficient attribution, even though she never directly cited the tech expert. She stated that she “attributed to my best judgment.”

    Mistakes happen, but even if your motives were pure, do you really want a plagiarism accusation hanging over you for the rest of your career?

    Of course not.

    What You Need to Know to Avoid Being Sued

    Direct quotes. If you use a person’s specific words, you must put the words in quotes and give credit to the speaker. “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Patrick Henry said.

    Information and ideas. If you get information or ideas from somewhere else, credit the source, even if you use your own words to describe it. Thomas Jefferson was known to greet White House guests while wearing his robe and slippers, NPR reports.

    Research and stats. You didn’t pull those numbers from behind your ear, did you? Give credit to the original source of any data you cite. Up to 100,000 people visit the White House every month, according to

    Opinion or uncertainty. If you’re stating someone’s else’s take on the matter, source it: The best foreign policy president of the 20th century was FDR, according to The Atlantic. Similarly, if you’re uncertain about the facts, source it: FDR may have been suffering not from polio but Guillain-Barré syndrome, according to a report from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

    The Tricky Business of Image Attribution

    This one is a little more involved due to the laws of copyright infringement. There’s a difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you can and cannot do with images:

    • If you took the photo or created the visual you’re using, you’re fine — you own the copyright.
    • You cannot grab someone else’s photo, use it in your work and think you’re covered because you provided attribution (“Photo by Joe Blow”). Do this, and you could find yourself on the receiving end of a DMCA takedown notice.


    What can you do, then?

    • Access any of the dozens of stock photo sites (there are both free and paid ones) for copyright-free photos and illustrations. Here’s a list from Forbes of 33 of stock photo sites.
    • Find a Creative Commons image. These images are in the public domain, and you can use them as long as you properly credit the owner and follow any restrictions they may have placed on the image.

    What About Other Kinds of Content?

    Companies love it when you share these content assets; it’s one of the reasons they create them. They want them to be shared — not only does it help establish them as an authority in their industry and draw traffic to their site, it’s part of the culture of sharing that Leo Babauta discusses here.

    What constitutes “proper credit?” Two things: Mentioning them in your copy and linking to the original image.

    What About Credibility?

    There’s another angle to this: Attribution boosts your credibility. When you cite ideas or facts and back them up with proper attribution, you substantiate the point you’re trying to make. You’re telling the reader, This isn’t just my take on the matter — XYZ feels the same way. Compare, for example:

    One of the most important skills for a president to have is good public communication skills.


    One of the most important skills for a president to have is good public communication skills. In fact, in his book, The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to George W. Bush, Fred Greenstein lists “effectiveness as a public communicator” as a major factor contributing to presidential performance.


    See the difference? When you provide a source that backs up what you’re saying, you give credence to your point.

    What Doesn’t Need Attribution?

    • Common knowledge. You don’t need to attribute anything considered to be common knowledge or undisputed fact in the public domain. The Harvard Guide to Using Sources has more information on the categories of common knowledge.
    • What you witness firsthand. If the snow is up to your waist on the National Mall on inauguration day, you can just say so. People will believe you.

    Do Links Count as Attribution?

    No, they don’t. That’s my opinion. Some would argue that in this digital age, a link is sufficient. I disagree. Note from the Editor-in-Chief, Mary Jaksch: For online writers, a link is a clear attribution (if it’s not a poll!)

    Eight in 10 Americans believe that other people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.

    – is not the same as –

    Eight in 10 Americans believe that other people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy, according to a Gallup poll.

    First, links get stripped. If the link was removed at some point, then you simply have a statistic with no source. Attributing the source takes care of this problem.

    Second, the person or organization who did the research or came up with the idea has earned the right to be named. It’s only right.


    People get rightly upset where you use someone else’s words, images, ideas or research in your work without properly crediting the source. Intentional or accidental, it smacks of deceit nonetheless.

    Perhaps Steve Buttry, Director of Student Media at Louisiana State University, said it best: “Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism.”

    Knowing the guidelines of attribution will prevent you from making this type of ethical error and help you remain in good standing with editors and readers everywhere.

    About the Author: Megan Krause is the managing editor at ClearVoice, where she helps create great content and manage the content creation process. She also writes a regular writing and grammar column titled #DearMegan.

    About the author

      Megan Krause

      Megan Krause is the managing editor at ClearVoice, where she helps create great content and manage the content creation process. She also writes a regular writing and grammar column titled #DearMegan.

    • I’m gone to inform my little brother, that he should also visit this blog
      on regular basis to obtain updated from most recent information.

    • The issue of plagiarism is complicated: It seems as if some writers are merely watching and waiting to see who would quote them and what mistakes they would make, so that they can sue them in order to make a mint. The matter is complex because someone can be sued for merely mentioning someone else’s work without contacting his publisher. I truly feel that writers should be able to refer to others’ work in order to clarify, strengthen, disagree, or agree with a point without having to walk on egg shells to do so. This renders quoting others extremely clumsy ,edgy, and unnecessarily nerve-racking: It almost makes one not want to refer to other writers’ work: Doing so does add more credibility to one’s writing because it reveals the depth of research that he has done, but it is so unfortunate that writing has become so vulturous. The world is a lie, and matters like these just make you a whole lot more cautious about how you interact with it.

    • Amar kumar says:

      Hey Megan,

      Plagiarism can be personal, professional, ethical, and legal. With plagiarism detection software so readily available and in use, plagiarists are being caught at an alarming rate. Once accused of plagiarism, a person will most likely always be regarded with suspicion. Ignorance is not an excuse. Plagiarists include academics, professionals, students, journalists, authors, and others. Yes, i agree with you, most important things we can do for our writing career is to learn the rules of attribution.

      A professional business person, politician, or public figure may find that the damage from plagiarism follows them for their entire career. Not only will they likely be fired or asked to step down from their present position, but they will surely find it difficult to obtain another respectable job. Eventually, thanks for sharing your worthy information with us.

      With best wishes,

      Amar kumar

    • Nice informative post.

      Thanx for sharing very useful article. This is a brillient idea to get benefit from content theft…

      Enjoy reading all your post.

    • Sid says:

      Wow. Thanks for the list of those sites for images. I was thinking about this lately a lot on how to avoid copy right issues on images i use in my blog. You are a savior !

    • Muzammil says:

      Thanks Megan Krause!
      I’m also facing plagiarism issues. Plagiarism is one of the biggest danger for the blog now a days.

    • Dipak Jairath says:

      Reference to Alexander’s comments i could not help recall this email line I’d read a long time ago
      “Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again.”
      Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    • This article seems to confuse attribution and plagarism with copyright infringement. The two are quite different. Someone cannot publish a series of seven Harry Potter books, starting with, “As J. K. Rowlings said in…” and be clear of copyright infringement. Not even close.

      Copyright becomes an issue when the quote is substantial enough that an author needs to seek permission to include it. He is NOT protected by attribution. Indeed, the primary reason he may be quoting someone may be to attribute that quote to them.

      Attribution more a matter of professionalism than legality. Given the source offers them credit for the idea or wording and allows readers to check up on the source. Treating it as being like stealing is absurd. An major slice of what we say and write traces back to someone, perhaps to a fourth-grade teacher. If we can remember and if it adds to what is said, all is well and good to attribute. But there’s no reason to lie awake at night trying to source our every word or clutter our writing with it.

      Personally, I grow tired of all the furor that errupts in the news media over most cases of plagarism, typically by someone reporters don’t like (i.e. Trump’s wife). Years ago, I was involved in a dispute that was reported in major newspapers from London to Australia. Often a reporter contact me, but only to ask one or two questions. When the article came out, it’d be a muddle of details from Googled sources given without attribution and many now inaccurate.

      And yes, I know there are people so unoriginal, almost anything they write will be a cut and paste from other sources. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about so cluttering your writing with attributions that it becomes almost unreadable. And I’m talking about fretting over legalities rather than focusing on saying something mostly original and worth reading.

      –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride, which gives full credit to the other author, Albion Tourgee, perhaps the leading civil rights lawyer of the 19th century.

    • Russ says:

      That’s very useful, Megan, thanks. It’s way too easy these days to think that a simple link is an acceptable citation and, though many do, and as you say, it’s too easy for it to be stripped out.

      As a matter of interest, I use Microsoft Word (a lot). I know a lot of others do also, but notice that few know about Word’s referencing system. It is very powerful, very good, and though it doesn’t cover all methods of citation, it’s got most. The good news is, you enter the source details once and can use it again whenever you need to. Over the years, it’s saved me many hours of work.

      Kind regards,


    • Ashlyn says:

      What about using a photo of an image for a podcast? I have a post about a couple different podcasts and it’s clear that the photos are not my own and I say to click the picture and go to their websites for more info. The post is like a review more than anything I guess

      This article came at a perfect time! Thanks!

    • Lisa Betz says:

      Thanks, this was very helpful and easy to understand.

    • Leona Wellington says:

      Thanks Megan for a very important post!

      I work at a university writing center and this issue comes up all the time. I have become paranoid about plagiarism so I’m very careful in my own writing.

      Even referencing correctly can be an issue. One should use in-text citations like those you gave examples of above and a reference list at the end with all the references used in that particular piece.

      We use APA style and the website we often consult is: This wonderful cite generates references correctly for you in your style of choice and you can pick the kind of reference used because there are so many. It gives you both the in-text citation and the one for the end reference list.

      If you only have a link as mentioned above you can chose web search option and it will generate your reference from that link, so be sure to meticulously copy all the links you use as you go along so you don’t have nightmares at the end of your paper!!

    • Thanks Megan for this easy-to-understand article.The photo’s and text on our African site are regularly “lifted” by third world plagiarists – who obviously don’t understand the ramifications. More information like this will eventually filter through, along with irate victims (like me) contacting the offending parties for attribution.

    • Micheal A says:

      Until I read this post, I never knew a link does’nt mean attribution. I just felt like in this digital age, given a linkback to the right source is inform of citation.

      Thanks for sharing

    • Love the article. Linking it to my blog.

    • Ferdinand Alexander says:

      Everything is plagiarism. You’re not using one word you can call your own. You’re don’t have one thought you can call your own. You don’t even have one experience you can call your own as you interpret your experiences through the words and knowledge that has been put into you by society, by others. No matter what you write or say it’s likely that at some time, some place someone already said it or wrote it.

      • Hey Ferdinand… deep. You may be right.

      • ‘Influenced by’ only becomes ‘plagiarised’ when you get caught out.
        However… if by then you’re famous (or dead) it becomes ‘interpreted’.

        Even Shakespeare got away with plagiarism… He was a master of it.

      • Ferdinand Alexander says:

        I’m not interested in being right but I am interested in being ruthlessly honest. If anyone stands by the belief that what they’re writing is original and has its origins only in them then they are either liars, colossal narcissist or worst yet, both. Thanks for your reply.

        • Dipak says:

          I remembered a quotation which seemed to be quite appropriate while reading your interesting comments
          “Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again.”
          Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

    • Excellent points, Megan (and Mary)!

      I have given people heck for NOT properly attributing others’ words.

      I’ve seen many bloggers post things on Facebook that they have read in someone else’s blog post and try to pass them off as their own, just because the phrase or paragraph was so good.

      I love this, too:
      “Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism.” `~ Steve Buttry

      SO TRUE!!!

      • Hi Lorraine! Glad you liked it – thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

    • Kim says:

      Thank you, Megan, for including image attribution in this post! I am a photographer and I sell some of my photos as stock images. For most purposes, these will be inexpensive, but I have seen writers who wouldn’t dream of using someone else’s words simply swipe an image from social media and think it’s okay to use it by just giving credit to the creator. This is completely inappropriate, and I appreciate that you are spreading the word.

    • An important one to remember is the issue of using song lyrics in your novels.
      Even one line of a lyric is often a high enough percentage of the whole to be considered more than a sample as allowed for review purposes, and if included without permission (regardless of attribution) the rights holders will be sending you the bill.

      Don’t forget, the music industry has the best lawyers and those lawyers like to earn their money.

      Quoting a song’s title is allowed as titles of songs and books aren’t copyright, so if the line you quote happens to be the title, then you’re OK… for example:

      In the background the killer heard those final words of the song drifting out of the speakers.

      “I only want to be with you…”

      Dusty Springfield’s smoky tones faded away as the Sicilian pocketed his Beretta, then closing the door behind him, disappeared into the night.

      As that final line is also the title of the song, an author would be OK using it. If in doubt, and your character is a singer, then write your own lyrics for them to sing… Besides, it’s often better than using a current hit song that everyone might know when you write it, but may be forgotten by the time it’s published, or if you’re lucky, when the book’s being still read fifty years from now.

      Using cultural references can be a double edged sword. They can give a sense of time and place, but can equally confuse if the reader doesn’t recognise them.

    • Sandy says:

      What if one creates word combinations for descriptions that bear resemblance to another author…for example something like saying the sky is azure blue…and somewhere in someone elses work they might have used this word combination. Is this an issue?

    • Lorrie says:

      Thank you Megan for the great info, perfect for a newbie like me:)

    • Thanks, Megan, for your helpful post. What do you recommend if someone “lifts” your research and ideas [from published writings] in a blog and other online forms?

      • Hi Amy! You could do a few things. First, reach out to the person and ask them to properly credit you. If that doesn’t work, send them a cease and desist letter — it could come from you or an attorney (probably better from an attorney, but this method will cost you $). Third, you could file a DMCA Takedown Notice. Finally, you could always get an attorney (more $). I hope this never happens to you! Thanks for reading.

      • Hi Sandy, I don’t think two-word combinations fall under this, unless someone got a copyright on the phrase… always best to consult an attorney. Thanks 🙂

    • Excellent advice! You can’t be too careful with attribution.

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