Constitutional right

Article I Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants exclusive ownership of writings, photos, drawings, inventions – intellectual property – to those who create them.

Intellectual property: Copyright & plagiarism

Those who crafted the U.S. Constitution felt intellectual property rights were so important that they wrote intellectual property right guarantees into the first article of the Constitution. This means that you – and you alone – are entitled to benefit from the work you do when you research and write a story, create a film package, a photo essay or a Web site. If anyone uses your work without your permission, you are entitled to damages from them.

But this also means that if in writing a news report, creating a video package or building a Web site you use the work of another, you can be sued for copyright infringement, could be fired and could even wind up with the cloud of plagiarism hanging over your career for the rest of your life. At a minimum, you will lose credibility.

“Credibility is like virginity; once it is gone, it is gone forever.”
Wise County, (Texas) Sheriff

For the first 200 years of our nation's history, plagiarism was such a rare practice among journalists that it rated only small entries in journalism practice and ethics textbooks. Then, in the late 1990s, unprincipled journalists aided by ease of capturing text from the Internet, began using other people's work with greater frequency.

High profile cases, like that of Jayson Blair at The New York Times, placed a spotlight on the problem, and journalists everywhere suffered. The Society of Professional Journalists added a section on plagiarism to their code of ethics – hitherto thought unnecessary.

The message for journalists

What this means to young journalists has many tentatcles. However, following a few principles can help keep you on the right path.

  • Assume all material on the Internet is copyrighted. You may not use it without written permission from the copyright holder. This applies to text, images and other media.
  • If you do get permission to use someone else's material, or if you use it under established rules of fair use, then provide attribution.
  • Keep all use of others' material to a minimum. You are being paid to gather information, to synthesize and summarize it in your own words, and share it with your audience.
  • Always give attribution to the content originator.