How technology enables and busts digital plagiarism


Copy and paste and copyright rarely go hand in hand. On the Internet, plagiarism is both easier to do and easier to bust — all thanks to technology’s growth.

Plagiarism, which is defined as the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own, is often thought of as a problem unique to students. And indeed, technology has opened a whole new world of possibilities through which any kid with a debit card can purchase assignments, or else lift them with an easy Control+V.

Such acts are considered theft of intellectual property when taken without consent or credit. And it’s not just students — it’s anyone with access to digital content and the nerve or desperation to claim it as their own.

Technology exacerbates digital plagiarism

55 percent of professors surveyed by Pew research agree that in the past decade, plagiarism has increased substantially; 89 percent believed this to be due to the Internet’s influence.
This trend is not due to a change in morals, but the new-found ease of cheating: plagiarism enabled by technology saves up to 95 percent of the time it would take to complete an assignment.

Outside of the classroom and behind the screen, content (think videos, gifs, quotes and more) is so widely disseminated that it can easily become “common knowledge,” with the author difficult if not impossible to define.

According to the New York Times, authorless web content can blur the lines of digital plagiarism for modern students, who sometimes feel if there’s not an individual to credit, it’s up for grabs.

Journalists have run into similar issues with plagiarism due to the fast-paced digital news cycle, with reporters and new outlets alike burned for improperly credited aggregation, and worse, theft due to pressure to keep content flowing.

Technology can create tricky grounds for comedians, too: jokes are passed around with such frequency, on Twitter or elsewhere, that unless it’s stolen verbatim, the joke can’t be reclaimed.

Can technology solve plagiarism, too?

Patents and copyright exist for a reason: to keep ideas and creative works safe. But these measures alone aren’t enough to to curtail rampant digital theft at the rate it occurs.

Those that were educated in the Internet age know first-hand that papers submitted digitally are run through advanced plagiarism detection systems like, which identify how closely words and phrases match with other content on the web. And nowadays, there’s no shortage of similar tools for teachers to verify authenticity.

For image theft, visual recognition technology can help identify stolen or uncredited photos. Google itself has a simple image-search tool to do just that. It’s easier than ever, then, to identify the copies, gather evidence and reach out to offending parties.

For those that might plagiarize accidentally or for convenience, alternatives enforced by technology are “repost” and “share” options available on many platforms, which make for easy sharing with built-in credit. 

Content creators today can protect their work by disabling right clicking, adding citations to copied text, or using various online techniques to search and eliminate “copyscrapers.”

The gray areas

Below the surface Google scraping, it’s still next to impossible to know who could lift original work for, say, resume samples or portfolios outside of the web.

Even social media isn’t so easy to peruse or police when it comes to plagiarism; for example, Twitter will sometimes take down plagiarized tweets, but only if the author identifies and requests it, and without investigation or followup. 

Other social media sites have similarly murky IP laws, and there are no systems in place that prevent users from copying each other. Social media plagiarists, after all, don’t face the same legal or ethical repercussions as academic and journalistic plagiarists.
In an age where information is more available, attribution eroding, and new definitions of ownership emerging, it’s likely that technology will continue to shape these issues. Whether or not it will do so in a way that protects creators without stifling digital freedoms is anyone’s guess.