Copyright infringement and plagiarism in the Mark Driscoll controversy

Mars Hill Church has added an online statement to a webpage, and that statement says Pastor Mark Driscoll’s book Trial suffered from “citation errors.”

The latest news on the Driscoll plagiarism controversy, blogged by Jonathan Merritt, answers questions regarding the minister’s book Trial but does not answer questions about other books suspected of plagiarism

Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church added a statement about Trial to one of its webpages, according to Warren Throckmorton at Patheos (Merritt’s source for the church’s statement).

“Citation errors” might be unintentional, but unintentional mistakes are not necessarily free of legal consequences.

To explain the possibility of legal consequences, we have to get some official definitions.

We might say plagiarism is unethical and dishonest, but not necessarily illegal.

We might say copyright infringement is illegal and actionable.

On its website, the Digital Media Law Project (DMLP) at Harvard University explains copyright infringement and plagiarism.

“Plagiarism is the act of using another’s work and passing it off as your own,” says the Digital Media Law Project. “While such a use could open you up to a copyright infringement claim, there is no legal liability associated with the act of plagiarism.”

Legally, copyright infringement is a different matter.

According to “Copyright Basics,” a fact sheet from the U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of ‘original works of authorship,’ including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works.”

The person who produced a work has the “exclusive right to… and to authorize others to… reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords” and “prepare derivative works based upon the work,” says the U.S. Copyright Office.

Later on the fact sheet, the U.S. Copyright Office says, “It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright.”

Use of material without permission very easily could constitute copyright infringement.

DMLP offers the following examples to explain the differences between plagiarism and copyright infringement (read the third example closely):

“If an author publishes a poem on his blog in which he substantially copies from Dante’s Inferno but passes off the words as his own, he has committed plagiarism. However, the author has not committed copyright infringement because Dante’s work is in the public domain.

“In contrast, if a website owner publishes a compilation of contemporary short stories on her website without the permission of the original authors, she would be liable for copyright infringement, even if the compilation properly notes the original authors and thus avoids plagiarism.

“Finally, if a journalist uses content from yesterday’s daily newspaper as his own original article in a weekly online magazine, the journalist has committed both plagiarism and copyright infringement.”

Based some of the examples available here (they’re in Google Drive, so you might have to sign-in to your Google account to read them), Driscoll could easily be guilty of both plagiarism and copyright infringement.

According to DMLP, copyright infringement, once proven, can be legally actionable.

“If [a defendant in a copyright suit] is found liable for copyright infringement, the copyright holder will be entitled to recover his or her actual damages (e.g., lost profits) or, if certain conditions are met, statutory damages between $750 to $30,000 per infringement.  If the plaintiff can prove the infringement was willful, the statutory damages may be as high as $150,000 per infringement,” says DMLP.

Let’s look at that last sentence again, with my emphasis added: “If the plaintiff can prove the infringement was willful, the statutory damages may be as high as $150,000 per infringement.”

In other words, copyright infringement does not have to be intentional to bring legal trouble.

In light of what InterVarsity Press told Christianity Today (apparently just this morning), Driscoll and Mars Hill Church have plenty still to explain — and they’re not necessarily off the hook for legal problems, either.

Also see: 

Following Mark Driscoll’s plagiarism, it’s time to ask serious questions about Tyndale House’s credibility