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My question is based on a real-life incident that is making the rounds recently.

One YouTuber ("iilluminaughtii", real name Blair) sued (or threatened to sue) another YouTuber ("LegalEagle", real name Devin) for plagiarism, because one of Devin's video editors asked one of Blair's video editors how they had achieved a visual effect in some video. Here is one example Blair cited on Twitter:

Two side-by-side examples of a torn-paper effect

Both YouTubers have occasionally used this "torn paper" effect when presenting written material in their videos.

This specific incident seems spurious because there's a huge amount of prior art exactly like this that predates Blair's entire career, but it's also my instinct that even if that weren't the case, this kind of thing would not be plagiarism.

I want to consider a more focused hypothetical case: Alice publishes a video with a totally novel visual effect. Bob sees Alice's published work, is impressed, and also has a fitting use for the effect. (A real-world case might be "bullet time" from The Matrix, which later showed up in a several other movies.)

Is it plagiarism if one of Bob's staff asks one of Alice's staff how they did the effect, and the staff member explains how they did it, and then Bob uses it in a new work that has no other similarities to Alice's work?

Is the answer different if Bob's staff reverse-engineers the effect instead of asking them?

My gut tells me we're crossing a line between different kinds of intellectual property, perhaps from copyright into letters patent, and there are some kinds of thing that simply aren't protected by any kind of IP law, but I would like to know the truth.

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    Are either person involved in academia? Plagiarism is an academic issue, not a legal one.
    – Dale M
    Dec 9, 2023 at 5:35
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    Then plagiarism has no business being in the question. It’s also not “offiside” (for whatever sport you might name) - plagiarism or offside are real things in their context; it’s just that the law isn’t their context.
    – Dale M
    Dec 9, 2023 at 8:56
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    OP's question is fine. If a person wants to know whether alleged acts of plagiarism is grounds for a lawsuit -- as is clearly the case here -- it seems like they need to say that in the question. And of course, the answer is sometimes, because plagiarism often amounts to a copyright violation.
    – bdb484
    Dec 9, 2023 at 14:42
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    @DaleM I'm afraid I had to ask about "plagiarism," because that was the charge being bandied about elsewhere. However, as you've explained, there is a bit of an XY problem here, and that's part of why your responses have been valuable. Thanks!
    – Tom
    Dec 10, 2023 at 4:05
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    AFAIK, Blair never threatened a lawsuit. She brought motions only in the court of public opinions. Dec 11, 2023 at 4:51

3 Answers 3

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First, plagiarism is taking claiming some intellectual work as your own without giving proper attribution (there are other optional social rules regarding plagiarism which we don't need to get into). Plagiarism is not prohibited by law, just by your teacher or publisher. Copyrights, patents and trademarks are completely different and do involve law (ergo possible lawsuits).

Applied to a special effect in a movie, e.g. a voice of video effect, the technique for producing the effect could be protected by a patent, if the inventor had obtained a patent. Reverse engineering is irrelevant, because the specifics of how-to are publicly known, so that you can know "I can't do it this way". If a method is patented, you cannot use the method without permission. Creating a similar effect using a different method is not patent infringement. Creating a visual or audio effect that only has "the same vague idea" is not copyright infringement, but copying the actual sound of video clips is copyright infringement. In short: plagiarism is legally irrelevant. Copyright and patent infringement are pretty specific and completely different things.

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    Trademark protection may apply to an appearance (though I would doubt it in this case). Dec 10, 2023 at 12:41
  • Is it the case that whether Alice has any legal recourse will depend on whether she has previously undertaken to formally obtain a legal monopoly (whether through copyright, a patent, etc.)?
    – Tom
    Dec 11, 2023 at 5:30
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    @Tom: It depends on the type of IP protection. In order from most legal recourse to least: Copyright is granted automatically, even without formal registration. The registration may be necessary prior to a lawsuit, but need not be done in advance (but it's often a good idea to do so). Trademarks must be registered in advance. Unregistered trademarks provide minimal protection, but it's often regional. Patents must be registered in advance. Patent registration is time-consuming, but there are mechanisms in place to provide patent protection while a patent application is in progress.
    – Brian
    Dec 11, 2023 at 15:39
  • What about "look and feel" copyrights? That was the issue in Apple vs. Microsoft.
    – Barmar
    Dec 11, 2023 at 17:10
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    @muntoo it is easy to imagine real world examples. I could have two different processes which create the same chemical molecule in the end. But both may involve different steps/temperatures/initial conditions.
    – Falco
    Dec 12, 2023 at 10:06
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Plagiarism is not a legal issue

Plagiarism is a type of academic misconduct where a person passes off another persons work as their own or uses another’s work without appropriate citation. It is not a type of wrong that the law recognizes.

It is a matter for universities and colleges, not the courts.

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    So, if I reprint Stephen King's It, but change the title, put my name on it, and use ChatGPT to "right-click-thesaurus" every sentence, I'm definitely a plagiarist, but that's not what King (or his publisher) would sue me for; they'd sue me for copyright violation. Is that right?
    – Tom
    Dec 9, 2023 at 7:18
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    @Tom none of that is plagiarism (unless you submit it as a thesis for a creative writing degree); all of that is copyright violation.
    – Dale M
    Dec 9, 2023 at 8:56
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    @DaleM It's plagiarism if you submit it as a thesis, but also if you just publish it, or otherwise claim it as your own work. The context of the plagiarism just determines whether it's considered a "University disciplinary offence", not whether it's plagiarism at all. (At least, according to Oxford.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 10, 2023 at 1:24
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    @DaleM it may not be a legal issue, but if I present your work as my own, I am committing plagiarism whether it is in the context of an academic institution or not. If I present your work to my sister as my own, that's still plagiarism. Perhaps nobody cares, sure, but that doesn't mean it isn't plagiarism or that the act of plagiarism requires the involvement of an academic institution. See merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plagiarizing. For instance, it is also a thing in the workplace and if I present my colleague's work as my own, I am plagiarizing my colleague.
    – terdon
    Dec 10, 2023 at 14:30
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    Plagiarism is simply an act of taking someone else's intellectual work and passing it off as your own. For example, stand-up comedians get accused of plagiarism all the time for stealing jokes from other comedians.
    – Davor
    Dec 10, 2023 at 15:21
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Others have explained that plagiarism is a technical term in academia.

With regard to the example, however, I'd like to point out that even in an academic context, plagiarism is likely not applicable here:

Alice's staff teaches Bob's staff how to produce that visual effect. Alice's staff then goes on an applies the learned procedure to their [Alice's group's] own work. This is not plagiarism, this is teaching and learning as academia supposed it to happen.

Plagiarism would come into play iff Alice's staff claimed that they invented/discovered/developed the procedure themselves (or in an academic publication omitted to mention Bob's staff as the source of knowledge they used since that would amount to the claim of having invented/discovered/developed it themselves).

But neither working according to that new procedure/technique, nor the product of that is plagiarized.


Of course, Alice may sue their staff for revealing confidential information/business secrets, depending on the terms of their contract.

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