The bane of any writer’s existence is the accusation of plagiarism—of not being original. In the olden days, you could get away with it if you were unscrupulous; and many students had to avail themselves of privileged material to get by in a pinch. Now there is the dreaded Copyscape! It will reveal the pros from the amateurs like stripping chaff from the wheat.
In college, you are warned incessantly about it and no doubt become wary of the eagle eyes of your professors. Before the Internet, you had to assume a memory lacuna would help you escape the dreaded label of plagiarist. Nowadays, in seconds your sources are bared for all to see. You can paraphrase and restate, but more than a few imitated words is a major no-no.
Plagiarism is defined as appropriating the ideas and words of another. (It also applies to music and lyrics.) It is more serious than “copying” or borrowing. You call it your own. Some people loosely insert a few lines in an essay or book without a formal citation or assume certain phrases are universal and up for grabs like poetry or famous quotes. Plagiarism seems more of an act of will to disregard the property of others. In fact, using existing writing is downright fraud.
You can now open a Copyscape account to check student work and it may well be worth the effort. There are free services like WriteCheck, downloadable software programs, and apps. If in doubt, do it. You can quickly spot a perpetrator in the making or save yourself a lot of grief. You can Google some words as well to reveal sources. Those taking writing courses, for example, should know the ropes right out of the box. If you can’t cut the must or on your own, don’t indulge your fantasy. The Internet ultimately reveals all like an electronic crystal ball, and the results are not always appreciated.
There is a moral imperative about doing your own work and not taking credit for others’ ideas. You can use them for inspiration, of course, but must manipulate the material at least somewhat for renewed authenticity. I know an author who used some quotes and was rejected for copying. It was a mindless use of the system since the citations were there to back up personal statements and were acknowledged references. There was no bibliography to substantiate it, but it was pretty clear. Obviously, the process of checking for plagiarism can go too far. Editors and publishers understand this, and it is also relevant for classroom instruction as well.
A word on ebooks. There are so many out there that Amazon can’t possibly check each and every word. It is up to writers and readers to agree to a truce about plagiarism. It isn’t a matter of what you can get away with, but an issue of honesty about not conning the public. The greed for fame and fortune can overtake the best intentions, but too little is at stake to lose your self-respect.