By David Woods, HOC editor

It’s been said that copying from one source is plagiarism; but copying from several sources is research.

Whether you’re an experienced writer or a neophyte, you’d be well advised to keep a wary eye on issues of plagiarism and copyright, in part because the internet has helped to create both dangers and protections in both – and penalties can be tough.

For instance, a journalism professor told me recently that one of his graduate students produced an uncharacteristically polished and literate essay. The professor Googled a few sentences and discovered not only that the work had been lifted wholesale from another author’s published document… but that the student hadn’t even bothered to change the distinctive typeface of the original.

The result: a failing grade. And The New York Times, with its perennial front-page slogan “All the news that’s fit to print” fired star reporter Jason Blair for flagrant fabrication of stories.

Copyright is governed by the Berne Convention which is international and which protects intellectual property. It states that all works except photographic and cinematic shall be protected for at least 50 years after the author’s death.

In addition, the US has a federal Copyright Act. It’s important to remember that medical writers hold the copyright of their work, not the commissioning pharmaceutical company – and that if significant amendments are made at first draft, those amendments are then owned by the writer who did them!

That’s why Rx Communications has a copyright release in every contract, and why you should ensure this is so in your contracts with your agencies and writers, if you use editorial support.

Thorley Mills, head of the international intellectual property division of a Philadelphia law firm, says that while “there is no definitive judgment of copyright-worthiness in the registering of copyright, but registration, if the copyright proves valid, offers valuable additional remedies against infringers and shows the world – and the courts – that the copyright holder claims rights in good faith”. Mills contends that applying for copyright is “simple, user-friendly and inexpensive”.

So if you want to be sure that your original work doesn’t crop up under someone else’s name, register it. And if you’re thinking of claiming another author’s work as your own – be warned!