Internet has become the foremost medium to gather information for any purpose. It is used to find information by students for educational purposes (like writing projects, notes, etc.), by professionals for market research, by music lovers to listen to, or download music, and by people who access the web for a host of other reasons. Earlier, books were the main source to gain information. However, in recent times, people are relying more on the Internet for it. This major shift can be attributed to the fact that Internet is quick, whatever information one wants is just a click away, and most importantly, it's free.
Plagiarism has become common, with increasing popularity of the Internet. People who use the Internet, often do not know, if it is protected by copyright laws. They think that just because the information is available for free, it can be copied. However, this is not true. We are aware of the fact that every book has a copyright, which is owned by the writer of the book, and copying any content from it is an offense.
In the same way, material published on the Internet is protected by certain copyright laws, which prohibit the readers or whoever accesses the Internet, from plagiarizing the content. Copyright laws apply to stories, poems, email, articles, images, music, videos, in short anything that appears on the web, even if there is no appropriate copyright signature on that particular web page.
Every person who uses the Internet should be aware of the copyright laws that safeguard the material found on it. Before we know the laws, it is important to understand what copyright is all about. Stephen Fishman, in his book, 'The Copyright Handbook' defines copyright as a legal device that provides the creator of a work of art or literature, or a work that conveys information or ideas, the right to control how the work is used. If any work is plagiarized for commercial gain, it is considered to be an offense under copyright laws.
Only original work by an individual can be protected under copyright laws. Even an e-mail that one receives, is protected under copyright laws and an individual does not have the right to forward it.
Copyright laws on the Internet emphasize that a work of an individual, published on the web, should not be replicated anywhere else by another individual. Any original material from the Internet cannot be taken and reproduced word for word. If one wants to copy any material from a site, it is necessary to seek permission of the site owner or the author. If one is copying directly from a person's work, it is necessary to acknowledge that fact through citations. Plagiarizing any material on the Internet comes under the purview of civil law and a person can be heavily penalized for it.
However, there are some limitations, even to copyright laws, which are collectively termed as fair use. It allows a person to use information available on the Internet, with some restrictions. Under the criteria of fair use, although it is illegal to copy, one can use ideas and also things that come under the public domain like facts, slogans, short phrases, names, and words. When a person uses material from the Internet for education or work, it comes under the domain of fair use. But if someone uses the material for publishing it with his name as the author, it is illegal. A new work will not be considered to be plagiarized, if it is restructured by only taking the ideas and also when the target audience is different from that of the original work.
As people are unaware of copyright laws, they are also ignorant of the fact that plagiarism can be caught. Technology has advanced to such a great extent that it has introduced a variety of techniques to get hold of plagiarized material, and hence people should not think that no one will know if they plagiarize anything from the Internet.
Every original work is the outcome of efforts taken by the author. We must remember that copying from someone's work is not only illegal, but a way of showing disrespect to that person.