Copyright and plagiarism in online learning [Webinar Recap]

April, 15 2020
Dark navy copyright logo with a yellow padlock attached to the bottom right
Nicola Choon
Written By
Nicola Choon

A recent UNESCO meeting highlighted that nearly a fifth of the world's population consists of students forced to stay home from school and university. Their teachers are expected to move their lessons online at a breakneck pace: in the same meeting, one minister of education noted that "we have made more progress with digital and distance learning in the past 10 days than in the past ten years."

In the midst of rushing to migrate their educational content to an online environment, many educators have expressed concern that copyright infringement and plagiarism could be slipping through the cracks.

In our race to go online in time to deliver classes to our students, we must not forget that copyright law continues to apply.


This concern has spurred educators from Universiti Sains Malaysia to host a webinar consulting their university's legal advisor on navigating copyright law:

Professor Abd Karim Alias
is a Professor of Food Technology at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), Director of the Centre for Development of Academic Excellence (CDAE) and a pioneer in online teaching innovation.

Dr. Khairul Anuar Che Azmi is USM’s Legal/IP Adviser and a leading expert in intellectual property.

For the benefit of educators who are moving their lessons online, this blog post highlights a few key points and questions from Professor Karim and Dr. Khairul's conversation on copyright.


5 Myths About Copyright

MYTH 1Myth: “If it’s on the Internet, it’s in the public domain and therefore free.”

Fact: Even though it’s on the Internet, it may not be free to use — especially if it has copyright notices such as ©, “copyright”, “Getty Images” or “Shutterstock”. Try looking for free or open-licensed resources instead.

Myth: “If there is no copyright notice, I can use the image.”

Fact: Copyright is automatically conferred upon creation, regardless of whether the owner includes a copyright notice. So, you may need to get consent from the owner before using the image. 

Myth: “If I alter the image, I don’t need permission.”

Fact: If you alter the image substantially, you might escape — but if the original image prevails, it’s still considered to be a breach of copyright.

Myth: “If I don’t profit from it, I can use it.”

Fact: Even if you don’t profit from it, you should still seek permission. If you have made profit from it, you may need to compensate the author for damages.

Myth: “If I only use a part of the image, I don’t need permission.”

Fact: Unless it is explicitly allowed under fair use or fair dealing rules, you still need to get the owner’s permission if you use a part of their work.



Copyright vs. plagiarism: are they the same thing?

The main difference between copyright and plagiarism lies in enforcement. Copyright is protected under the Copyright Act 1987, whereas plagiarism is usually punished through academic sanctions. That means you can sue someone for breaching copyright law in court, but you can't sue someone for plagiarism.

What is the fair use or fair dealings rule?

There are a few exceptions under copyright law, one of which is fair use. If you are using a piece of content for educational purposes, and are not profiting from it, you could be entitled to use it without breaching copyright. The Copyright Act 1987, section 13.2, mentions these exceptions.

Questions and Answers

Q: Are ideas protected by copyright?

Ideas are not protected until they are expressed as something tangible. You can take ideas that you've found online and use them as a starting point in your own work. As long as the end result is not the same, it will not be considered plagiarism or a breach of copyright.


Q: Should I sue someone who has stolen my work?

It’s common to hear people say, “I’ll sue you in court!”, but actually, it isn’t that straightforward. You can’t file a court case on your own; you’ll need to find a lawyer. To open up a file at a lawyer’s firm could cost you between RM3,000 and RM5,000, depending on their seniority and experience. In total, to enforce your right in court, you might end up spending roughly RM8,000 to RM10,00 — and if the court does agree that there has been a breach of copyright, they may only award you RM100 in compensation. So, unless the work is worth a more valuable compensation amount, you'll most likely be throwing good money after bad.


Q: I’ve uploaded clinical pictures and videos of patients (with their consent) to YouTube. Do these belong to YouTube, to the patient, or to my institution?

The copyright belongs to you, individually. Not to your institution or YouTube.

Under the law, ‘moral ownership’ of a work belongs to the individual creator. If you are under a contract of employment, your institution could also claim legal ownership of your work and use it at any time for their business.

A well-referred-to case in terms of how the court acknowledges ownership is Syed Ahmad Jamal v Kuala Lumpur City Hall: In 1986, a well-known Malaysian artist was commissioned to design a large sculpture which was then donated to Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL). Years later, DBKL renovated the sculpture without the artist’s consent. As a result, it became totally different and the artist sued DBKL for RM750,000. The court awarded that money to the artist because he still had moral ownership of the sculpture.

If your university wishes to alter something you’ve created, even if you have retired, they will have to get your consent first as you are the moral owner.

Q: If I develop my own website to administer assessments, does the copyright belong to me, my school or the funder (assuming it's a grant)? 

You are the creator of the website, so it belongs to you as the moral owner. As for whether it belongs to your institution, your employer, or the person who is funding the creation of your website: it depends on the terms of your agreement. Government grants are usually less fussy about ownership, but external grants tend to include terms about joint ownership.

Q: If you use information from an article and turn it into an infographic, poster or video (as your online teaching material), word for word, is that considered plagiarism?

No, assuming that you’re not taking all of the information from the article and adding the whole thing to your infographic, poster or video. But always be careful in doing this.


Q: Is it plagiarism if I use Maths problems and solutions from other workbooks, but change the numbers?

If you are taking the examples verbatim without any amendments or alterations, it may amount to plagiarism. This might also be taken as a breach of copyright, because the material is from a book and the author may want to enforce their right in court. There are two ways to deal with this: one way is to cite and acknowledge the author of the work. The other is to paraphrase the work. Just changing the numbers is not sufficient.


​Q: If we take questions from a textbook, we need to rephrase them. But do we need to recreate the relevant diagrams, or can we just mention the source? 

Yes, you can. It is highly recommended to mention the source. But it's much more valuable if you can create it yourself.


These are just a few of the questions on copyright that were answered during the webinar. Ultimately, Professor Karim notes that there is a lot more ambiguity when it comes to copyright in online learning. If this recap was helpful for you, watch the rest of his webinar series on Teaching Online During COVID-19 Time and subscribe to his YouTube channel to participate in future live webinars.


We are also running regular creator meet-ups over the coming weeks for you to ask any questions you may have on creating online courses. Watch a recap of our most recent webinar:

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OpenLearning is a social online learning platform with drag-and-drop tools for creating great learning experiences. If your school or university has closed during this time, we might be able to help:

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*Disclaimer: Ultimately, OpenLearning cannot advise on any copyright issue, and members are responsible for any content that they have contributed to the platform. Please check our Terms of Service for more information.


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