Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement is Stealing

by Phil La Duke

If one doubts the fierce ignorance and proud stupidity rampant in the Safety function one need only read a recent LinkedIn thread where I tried in vain to help water-headed, mouth breathing safety professionals understand that one cannot plagiarize the work of another simply in the name of safety.

The thread was started by a man that I’ve grown to like and respect, even though we’ve never met. Social networks are good for that because you get a sense for what people believe and you can get past your own biases about accents, manner of dress, or the myriad other things that we routinely do to judge the proverbial book by its cover.

“Safety people is it acceptable to “copyright” a safety manual you develop for a client? Further, is it acceptable to “cut and paste” from one manual to another even if what is in the manual has no semblance to the actual work done by the customer?  Is it just unacceptable or also unethical?” ( Source: LinkedIn (2017))”

This is an excellent question that as it turns out most safety people should know, NEED to know, but don’t know. First of all, copyright law is tricky and differs from country to country, but through treaties, international law, and varying reciprocal agreements most governments respect copyrights of citizens or corporations of another country.  All of this is beside the point because the question is pretty straight forward, and the answer is you cannot copyright material that does not belong to you and if you were paid by a client to develop a manual the ownership of the manual transfers to the company who commissioned the work. Thomas Edison didn’t invent all the things with which he is credited; he had a team that he hired to develop ideas and to shape them into “inventions”.  Similarly, while Steven Jobs as head of Apple brought us many wonderful products, he didn’t write the code, design ever facet of things (although he was very much a hands-on businessman).  In both cases, the individuals who did the actual work to bring these ideas to fruition could not claim ownership because they were paid for their work.

The thread was choked with water-headed safety dimwits who insisted everything from the Bible is public domain (it isn’t. There are many versions, translations, and editions each published and sold) to Safety can’t be copyrighted because it’s for the benefit of everyone to safety. The stupidity demonstrated by some of the posters was staggering. I was reminded of the dimwitted movement in Detroit where people protested the Detroit Water Department turning off people’s water for lack of payment.  When asked if I wanted to join the protest I told the grubby protest agitator who looked to me like it had been a decade since he had been anywhere NEAR water, that I would love to but I had a “pay your damned water bill rally planned for the same day”.  To those who screamed “water is a right and water should be free” I offered to call the water department and the associated Unions to arrange to have these dimwits work at the water purification plants and sewage treatment plants for free. Oddly, none of these protestors or free water advocates was willing to work in and around polluted water or sewage for free.  If people who work to provide us clean drinking water deserve to get paid, why then don’t the people who develop safety materials? Perhaps more to the point, why should safety professionals expect to be able to steal other’s hard work and sell it to their clients because “safety should be free”.

“Copyright does not protect ideas or facts themselves. Copyright does protect the selection and arrangement of ideas:, i.e., their original and creative expression, as soon as they are fixed in some tangible form.”—Source: [1]

What this means water-heads, is that while Safety as a concept cannot be copyrighted, nor can a fact be copyrighted, BUT when I write a training program on fall protection or confined space I may be able to copyright it as long as it is not a work for hire. Determining whether something is a work for hire is simple, a piece becomes a work for hire if any of the following are true:

  1. Your employer asked you to do it; or
  2. You did it on company time or premises; or
  3. You used company tools, equipment, or supplies to create it.

Many would-be writers make the mistake of writing something they to which they wish to retain the intellectual property rights on their company computer. Oops! if you employer wants to, it can compel you to relinquish any claim to that intellectual property.

Plagiarism is different than copyright violation, because one can plagiarize something that is not copyrighted. Way back in high school, Brother Remigus Bullinger a great man and a great mind who bore a striking and yet unintended resemblance to Ben Franklin, taught me that the word plagiarize comes from a Greek saying that roughly translated meant “you stole my slave”. I recently completed a course on plagiarism as part of my preparation for work on the Wayne State Bio Safety Board to which I was recently appointed.  The course covered a lot of things I already knew, but I still managed to learn a thing or two about plagiarism, most significantly that is possible to plagiarize one’s own work.

Avoiding plagiarism is important not just because the person you plagiarized can sue you back to the Stone Age, but consider this; what if the source from which you stole was wrong? By claiming it as your own work you bear the legal liability for anything that goes wrong. Your stupidity and thievery could get someone killed.

Of course since many safety policies have the same source, i.e. international or national safety regulations, there is bound to be a great deal of similarity between training courses or safety manuals, but that doesn’t obviate the need to site the source of the material. It only takes a moment to credit a source, but in the post Napster world thieves and unethical puss bags will justify stealing because they think safety ought to be free. Safety companies, whether they be small mom and pop shops or international giants deserve to be paid, or at very least credited for their work.  If you can’t trust a safety professional not to steal can you really trust them with the lives or your workers?


[1] Do you see how easy it is to avoid plagiarism? Merely site your source dumbass