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Plagiarism: 5 Potential Legal Consequences

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

As college students prepare for to start their fall terms, the unfolding saga of Senator John Walsh's plagiarized college paper should act as a warning of the potential perils of academic plagiarism.

Walsh is facing calls to withdraw from the race to defend his Montana Senate seat after allegations surfaced that he failed to properly attribute sources in a 2007 paper written while earning his master's degree at the U.S. Army War College, reports The Huffington Post.

Plagiarism -- copying another's work and passing it off as your own -- can have potentially dire consequences, sometimes many years after the fact. Here are five potential legal consequences of plagiarism:

  1. Payment of royalties. If your work is found to be an unattributed copy of someone else's you may be forced to repay profits earned on the work to the original owner. Australian band Men at Work were ordered to pay royalties to a publishing company after a judge found they lifted a portion of an Australian school teacher's song in their 1979 hit "Down Under."
  2. Costly court battles to clear your name. A woman who claims she was falsely accused of plagiarism while attending Harvard Law was forced to sue the school to clear her name. Megon Walker's lawsuit against the school claimed that plagiarism charge -- which she alleges was caused when the school law journal published an unfinished draft of an article -- caused her to lose out on a $160,000/year job offer.
  3. Court sanctions. Even attorneys have been caught plagiarizing. Stephanie Ovadia, who represented Lindsay Lohan in multiple civil lawsuits, was sanctioned $750 by a U.S. District Court judge for plagiarizing the contents of her legal briefs.
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  4. Eye-popping copyright lawsuits. When plagiarism charges are levied at well-known authors or individuals, the dollar amounts involved can be staggering. In 2011, Oprah Winfrey was hit with a $100 million lawsuit after an author alleged that Winfrey failed to acknowledge that she used the author's pamphlet on an episode of her show. That suit pales in comparison to a 2009 lawsuit against the author and publisher of the Harry Potter series of books. Potential damages in that case were estimated to be in the $1 billion range.
  5. Possible jail time. Plagiarism is typically a civil matter, but in certain cases it can be part of criminal fraud charges. A man who faked his way into Harvard with fake test scores and scored scholarships and awards by plagiarizing essays was jailed for two years after violating probation terms barring him from holding himself out as a Harvard graduate.

At best, plagiarism can get you kicked out of school. At worst, it can cost you a job (including the job of U.S. Senator). Think twice before you CTRL+V.

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