Plagiarism vs. Copyright Infringement

by on November 5, 2006 · 4 comments

A Wikipedia critic claims that plagiarism is rampant on the site:

Daniel Brandt found the examples of suspected plagiarism at Wikipedia using a program he created to run a few sentences from about 12,000 articles against Google Inc.’s search engine. He removed matches in which another site appeared to be copying from Wikipedia, rather than the other way around, and examples in which material is in the public domain and was properly attributed. Brandt ended with a list of 142 articles, which he brought to Wikipedia’s attention. The site’s founder, Jimmy Wales, acknowledged that plagiarized passages do occasionally slip in but he dismissed Brandt’s findings as exaggerated.

It seems to me that there’s some ambiguity here between plagiarism and copyright infringement. Some of the articles were determined to be “OK because copied passages came from the public domain.” That’s a defense against copyright infringement, but not against plagiarism. This confusion is intensified by the final paragraph of the article:

Editors found extensive problems in several cases, with many still not yet fully checked. Articles with offending passages have been stripped of most text. An entire paragraph in Alonzo Clark’s entry, for instance, was deleted, leaving the article with the bare-bones: “Alonzo M. Clark (August 13, 1868-October 12, 1952) was an American politician who was Governor of Wyoming from 1931 to 1933.” The original article, Brandt said, was copied from a biography on the Wyoming state government site.

Aren’t government documents automatically placed in the public domain? If so, isn’t the remedy simply to include an attribution that the material came from the state of Wyoming’s website?

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