If I'm going to describe the origin of the word "dinosaur" and I say that the taxon Dinosauria was formally named in 1841 by paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, and that the foregoing description is copied and pasted directly from Wikipedia (which it is), I think we can agree that it's:

  1. a type of plagiarism.
  2. improper, possibly dishonest or negligent in not attributing the source.
  3. violates the license terms of Wikipedia's content, which is (roughly speaking) CC BY-SA.

If I paraphrased the quote using my own words I think we can agree to points 1 and 2, but maybe not point 3 (I'm not sure, maybe someone can clarify).

The tricky thing about this is summed up in the following question:

Assuming that nearly all my knowledge is accumulated by reading books and hearing things (whether publications, broadcasts, or people) which may be copyrighted or have license terms, in what circumstances could content that I publish reasonably be assumed to not need attribution?

Following on from that, I can say from my general knowledge that the speed of light in a vacuum is about 186,000 miles (or 300,000 km) per second. However if I wanted to give a more precise figure I would look it up either in an encyclopedia or in a dictionary and round it off to the closest mile or kilometer per second. Once I've checked about 5 sources to get a more precise figure, I would be tempted either to pick one and attribute the one source, or simply state that figure without attribution either because I might feel it's a number that I've learned or the number I've arrived at is synthesized from about 6 sources, and simply don't want to cite each one.

Probably a better example is the meaning of a word. In a personal creative work I might give the meaning of the word "rapprochement". I may feel I can already give a good definition because I know the meaning of it. But just to be sure I consult 5 dictionaries, maybe some other sources, and formulate a definition based on a synthesis from my previous general knowledge and the recent sources I consulted. In circumstances such as these what are the obligations to cite a source for your information? I guess the question is based on the fact that nearly all knowledge is sourced from something or someone that/who was not you, and I'm just wondering whether I'm wrong in thinking that I don't need to attribute a source if I'm telling you something that I read in an article yesterday. After all, I don't need to attribute a source, for plagiarism or license violations purposes, for something I know from reading an article five years ago, or from reading from Collins Dictionary five years ago.

Also, I can say the four largest moons of Jupiter were discovered in 1610. I had to look that up, but no one knows that, nor where I got that information from.

I'm talking purely from a legal point of view. I realize that if I say something it's in my interests to give citations of where I got that information from just for the purpose of appearing trustworthy, but I'm not talking about that. I'm purely talking about legal obligations.

  • Everything but copyright infringement is not a legal issue. When it's not a legal issue, it's just a matter of what the norms are in the particular discipline or forum you're participating in. Aug 12, 2019 at 1:25
  • @DavidSchwartz Sorry if this is an obvious question, but does violation of a particular license, for example GNU GPL or CC BY (say I don't attribute the source) violate copyright? In other words are license violation and copyright violation the same thing?
    – Zebrafish
    Aug 12, 2019 at 20:03
  • No. In the case of the GPL or CC BY, if you violate the license, you simply don't have a license. If you violate copyright, you are violating the law. They can be connected. For example, if you do something that copyright law prohibits you from doing, you can argue that you are permitted to do it because you have a license. If you don't do anything that copyright law prohibits you from doing (for example, if you merely use a work) then you don't need a license and so it doesn't matter whether you violated a license like GPL or CC BY. Aug 13, 2019 at 4:48
  • "If I paraphrased the quote using my own words I think we can agree to points 1 and 2." No. If you paraphrase something, but attribute the source, it is not plagiarism. Plagiariasm means misrepresenting someone else's work as your own, so as long as it is clear that you are quoting or paraphrasing something, it should not be considered plagiarism.
    – Brandin
    Aug 20, 2019 at 10:00

1 Answer 1


In the US, at least, facts - like the speed of light, the name of a dinosaur or the moons of Jupiter - are not copyrightable. But the words or pictures, designs and original work used to express and present those facts in books, websites and other publications by individuals and publishers are copyrightable. (Original work doesn't need to be published to be copyrighted; it is copyrighted at the moment of creation.) See How can "factual" intellectual property be protected?

Plagiarism can be copyright infringement; it's copying and presenting work of someone else's as your own. But not all copyright infringement is plagiarism in the sense that someone is claiming others' work as their own: if you're selling a T-shirt with an unlicensed design, you're not really claiming the design is yours; you're just trying to make money.

If you use all or part of an image or a quote or a song from a copyrighted source in your own work, you need permission and attribute the source. Or, you have to decide if the amount of the copyrighted material you are using might be Fair Use and you don't need permission. But decisions on what might constitute Fair Use are ultimately decided in court, because that's where can you end up when a person or a publisher sues you for alleged copyright infringement.

  • Thank you. As to whether I consult a few sources and synthesize my own description instead of quoting (quotes definitely being copyrightable), say from one of more encyclopedias, then it's not a direct quote from the source and therefore do not have to attribute the source? I've found an article: "Paraphrasing of copyrighted material", which I think is relevant my question. I still have to read it. I was sidetracked by the National Portrait Gallery's threat to Wikipedia in 2009 for using photos of public domain 2D artworks. In the US the photos remain public domain (but not in UK apparently).
    – Zebrafish
    Aug 11, 2019 at 22:21
  • Yes, you should be able to paraphrase; that's not plagiarism or would be a liability under fair use. And if this is for the UK, some laws will be different. Aug 12, 2019 at 5:42

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