Environmental, Chemistry & Hazardous Materials News, Careers & Resources

Editor's Blog

Plagiarism, Copyright Infringement, Fair Use and Environmental Organizations

By Kenneth Barbalace
[Tuesday, October 16, 2007]

One of the things that always amazes me is how poorly non-profit environmental organizations understand Fair Use clauses of the copyright law and how frequently individuals (even leaders) of these organizations plagiarize from others when writing their own articles. In our case, articles we publish on EnvironmentalChemistry.com have been frequent victims of copyright infringement and/or plagiarism by different well know environmental organizations.

We are flattered that these environmental organizations want their membership to read what we write. Unfortunately, the republishing and/or plagiarizing of our works really does cause us long term financial harm. This, in turn, hurts our ability to pay fair rates to highly qualified professionals, scientists and academics who write the very articles for us that these organizations find so valuable to their causes.

Like traditional media outlets, we depend upon advertising revenue to provide the funding we need to pay writers to research and write the articles we publish. We do not have some wealthy benefactor nor government agency underwriting our efforts. We fund the writing of new articles with the ad revenue existing articles generate. In turn, the new articles will eventually help to fund yet more articles. The more ad revenue we can generate, the more really good articles we can have written and publish.

When an individual or environmental organization plagiarizes or republishes our articles on their own websites, they cause us harm in three ways. First, if they republish our article on their website, instead of simply linking to the article on our website, they provide readers access to our content without us having an opportunity to display the very advertising that enables us to publish these articles in the first place.

The second way we are harmed is that when someone republishes or plagiarizes our articles on their own websites, they create a competing copy of our works for search engines to index. These competing copies of our articles can cause a duplicate content penalty to be assigned our original article. This can result in our article being buried in search results, thereby limiting the number of readers who find our article, and thus limiting our ability to recoup our initial investment. Alternatively, the duplicate copy of our article showing up in search results can also siphon off readers we might otherwise attract to our original article. Again, this limits our ability to recoup our initial investment via the advertising we display on our pages.

The third way plagiarism and the republishing of our articles harm us is that we really depend on people discovering and then sharing our website with their friends. If someone republishes our articles on their own site instead of simply linking to the original article with a short description, we lose the opportunity to introduce new readers to the other articles and resources our site has to offer. This, in turn, costs us an opportunity for the word of mouth promotion that we depend on so dearly to help increase readership.

Plagiarism is Academic and Intellectual Fraud

Any teacher will confirm that there have always been lazy students who liberally "copy and paste" writing by others into their own reports. The Internet, however, has made this seductively easy and more people in all walks of life are crossing the line from being influenced by the writing of others to actively copying and pasting other's writings and claiming them as their own. This is plagiarism, as well as academic and intellectual fraud.

When one references the writings of someone else one MUST NOT simply copy and paste select sentences or paragraphs from the other writings and include them in their own writings. Instead, one needs to read and absorb the message of the writings and then distill the message in one's own words. Even changing the order of words in sentences or replacing a few select words now and then is not sufficient to avoid plagiarizing the works of others – the words must be original. If one does decide that a section of text from the original writings needs to be incorporated into one's own works then proper citations (including full webpage address for online writings) needs to be clearly provided to ensure proper credit is given to the original source of the copied writings.

The line between being influenced by and plagiarizing the works of others can be a very fine line, which is why it is always important to properly cite referenced used when writing. It is also why I run every article submitted to me for publication through tools that are designed to detect plagiarism.

The latest case of our content being plagiarized is an editorial on the website of a well known environmental organization. From what I can tell, the writer is the president of the organization. In the editorial, a very considerable section of our article "Mercury in Fish vs. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Health Benefits", was copied and pasted into the editorial without any citation to our original article being provided. In all, the plagiarized section of the editorial is 80% identical to the text in our original article (around 650 of around 800 words). The only changes made to the plagiarized content were the occasional addition or deletion of a couple of words here or there to make it appear original. By taking the text from our article and claiming he wrote it and that the thoughts and words are his and his alone (by way of a lack of proper citation), the president of this organization has committed plagiarism and intellectual fraud.

When it comes to intellectual integrity and the sharing of important messages, the ends never justify the means. Those who plagiarize and/or commit intellectual fraud to further their cause should be rebuked because in the end, their fraud will be exposed and it will do more harm to their cause than good.

Right now I will allow the individual and organization to remain anonymous. If, however, my emails to the organization and individual in question are ignored, and the issue of plagiarism is not addressed to my satisfaction, I will publish in painful detail the extent of the plagiarism and make sure that this incident of intellectual fraud is fully exposed to the light of day.

The Fair Use Misunderstanding

Frequently environmental organizations will use the Fair Use clause of copyright law to defend their republishing articles on their websites. The problem is they have a complete misunderstanding of what protections the Fair Use clause affords and they are claiming fair use rights they do not have. Title 17 of the United States Code, Section 107 states:

Section 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Simply being non-profit and having a noble cause does not grant one Fair Use status. One must meet all four criteria for Fair Use. Republishing articles on one's website that are already published on anther website violates requirements number 3 and 4. Number four is violated because a competitive copy of protected works is being created, which competes against the original in search engines and draws readers away from the original, thus denying the author the ability to earn compensation for their efforts. In addition, copying and republishing an article instead of linking to the original article would be more than is necessary to serve the purpose of commenting on, criticizing or informing readers of said article.

A very good example of how courts interpret the requirements for Fair Use protection is the case Los Angeles Times v. Free Republic, 2000 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 5669 (C.D. Cal. 2000). Chilling Effects summarizes the case as follows on their Fair Use FAQ's:

In Los Angeles Times v. Free Republic, the court found that such a use was minimally -- or not at all -- transformative, since the article ultimately served the same purpose as the original copyrighted work. The initial posting of the article was a verbatim copy of the original with no added commentary or criticism and therefore did not transform the work at all. Although it is often a fair use to copy excerpts of a copyrighted work for the purpose of criticism or commentary, the copying may not exceed the extent necessary to serve that purpose. In this case, the court found that only a summary and not a complete verbatim copy of the work was necessary for the purpose of commentary and criticism.

The court also found that although the website solicited donations and advertised the services of another website, the overall nature of the website was non- commercial and benefited the public by promoting discussion of the issues presented in the articles on the website. However, the court found that the nontransformative character of the copying outweighed the consideration of its minimally commercial nature.

Finally, and most importantly, the court found that posting entire news articles on the website had an adverse market effect on the copyright owners.

If you want to explore the issue of Fair Use, one of the best sources I have found on this topic is the "Fair Use FAQ" at ChillingEffects.org, which is maintained by the George Washington University Law School.

Please Respect the Copyrights of Others

Please, the next time you see a really compelling article that you would like to share with others do not copy and/or republish the article elsewhere. Instead, reward the hard efforts of the original publisher of the article by providing a link to the original article along with a brief summary. This will help ensure that the publisher can continue to produce the content you find so compelling.


NOTICE: Comments are user generated feedback and do not represent the views and/or opinions of EnvironmentalChemistry.com.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Someone made aware of the following:

In spirit of good humor about plagiarism, here is and MP3 of satirist Tom Lehrer singing of Lobachevsky courtesy of the University of Michigan Historical Mathematics Collection. If you need a good laugh this will bring a good belly roar to your day.

Anonymous said...

As a chemistry teacher, I love your site simply for the great info that' here. I now love it for this story. I try to hammer home to our students just how plagiarism is a bad thing. This editorial shows exactly what I have been teaching for years - besides being dishonest, plagiarism is stealing.

On another note, I think I've found the site in question, but the article has already been changed. (I only found it through google's slowness at updating their cached search term.) If it is the right site, The irony! It burns! That this person would decry others for being intellectually dishonest while plagiarizing your site is just plain... astounding.

Keep up the good work.

(P.S. - Try a youtube search for Tom Lehrer's Element Song!)

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Anonymous chemistry teacher,

Thank you for your kind words. It is great to know that this article will help you teach your students why plagiarism is bad.

On your other note, yes I think you found the website I was referring to. The day after I sent them an email in regards to the plagiarism issue someone from their organization who was responsible for editing articles called me totally mortified that the plagiarism has slipped past her. Their article ended up getting published in four places and has taken a lot of work on their part and mine to get cleaned up.

Because the editor did take responsibility for the issue and worked to quickly clean it up, I will not disclose who the organization is as long as the remaining copies of their article on other websites get cleaned up. I probably will not be so charitable with the next organization that plagiarizes one of my articles.

Anonymous said...

i think, you are censoring comments. also you (as copyright owner) must be greedy enough, egro fair use doesnt apply.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Yes I do censor comments on my blog I say as much below the "post a comment" link. This is my website and blog and I can do what I want.

In regards to fair use, this is a legal concept and I respect fair use rights, however, fair use has legal limits to protect copyright holders. Publishing articles on my site is not free. I must pay writers to write quality content.

If I can not maintain exclusive rights to those articles I paid to be written, I can not recoup my expenses. In fact, because of constant plagiarism I have found it difficult to simply recoup the money I spend to pay writers to write articles for me. As such I've had to curtail much of the publishing of new articles I had intended to do.

Am I greedy, hardly. If I were greedy I could make a lot more money doing something else. It takes me around three years on average for a new article to generate enough revenue to recoup the money I spent on the article in the first place.

Fair use has its place and that place isn't to give lazy activists or website owners free content that they can claim as their own. In the case mentioned above, it wasn't even fair use, it was academic fraud because the individual didn't just republish one of our articles, they claimed it was their own writing. Plagiarism has no place in academia, science or any form of journalism including blogs.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am writing a report for a science project on cobalt, and I was wondering if just using facts from that such as the atomic radius would be considered Plagiarism, IP infringement or would that fall under fair use, considering you do not " own " that information and it is widly and readily available? Now I'm not saying I won't site your webpage, of course I will as it is required by my teacher. I was just wondering this because I don't want to infringe on the copyright of this site by copy/pasting some imformation from the page into my report ( I don't mean like paragraphs or even sentences I just mean things like the conductivity and things like that )

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Using facts such the atomic radius as in your example is not academic plagiarism provided you provide citations. As far as copyrights go, individual facts, like say atomic radius can not be copyrighted, however, the way facts are compiled and presented can be copyrighted.

Unfortunatly, one of the things that is not taught well in schools is understanding the difference between sharing ideas/facts and plagiarism.

The "Fair Use FAQ" I link to above provides a really good explanation of this whole issue. The better informed you are about this issue the easier it will be for you to understand the differences between plagiarism and citing ideas.

atif said...

Choosing An Online Plagiarism Detector To Check For Plagiarism

Plagiarism is a growing problem in academia and the work place. The internet has made it easy for nearly anyone to copy written material and pass it off as their own work. Because of the legal and ethical dilemmas associated with plagiarism, plagiarism checking software is now readily available. With so many online plagiarism detectors, choosing one may seem like an overwhelming task, but it can be easy if you know what you're looking for.

Extensive Plagiarism Checking Software

An online service that can check for plagiarism is a good place to start. A good plagiarism service won't just run through a few well-known plagiarism sites looking for copied work. Instead, the better plagiarism checking software programs will also compare work published through magazines, academic journals, books and billions of academic papers. The most advanced programs will also check message boards, blogs and other forms of casual internet communication.

Because not all plagiarism is copied word for word, a service that compares sentence structure and searches for papers with different synonyms is important. This means that someone submitting a paper as their own won't be able to simply use a thesaurus to change a few key words.
You can also find more details and services about plagiarism at here:

In depth plagiarism checking serviceThanks

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Talking about plagiarism, I wonder where the numbers (e.g. neutron capture cross section) on the website come from. What are the references?

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

All references for our data on our periodic table of elements are on our main page for our Periodic Table.

Data points like the neutron capture cross section for elements can not be copyrighted. The presentation of data points can be copyrighted.

Since it isn't so obvious from the individual element pages that the references are on the main page, I'll add a link to it from the bottom of the element pages.

Vertex Law said...

greatly informative blog regarding the tricky and often pitfall heavy world of copyright law.

This particular branch of law (and it can be argued all branches of law) is constantly changing, so it is up to law firms to keep up-to-date with these ongoing changes. Something as critical as copyright law can permeate all aspects of society, so its importance cannot be understated.

Very well written and highly informative.

Anonymous said...

what is our place of publication? I've found your information very useful to me and have used it in my Assignment, but need your place of publication to reference. Thanks.

Ken (EnvironmentalChemistry.com) said...

Place of publication was Portland Maine. Details can be found on the "About Us" page linked to at the bottom of this page.

EnviroChem Logo