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Information Literacy Guide: Legal & Ethical Use

ACRL Standard Five

The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.


Performance Indicators:

  1. The information literate student understands many of the ethical, legal and socio-economic issues surrounding information and information technology.
  2. The information literate student follows laws, regulations, institutional policies, and etiquette related to the access and use of information resources.
  3. The information literate student acknowledges the use of information sources in communicating the product or performance.

Source: Information literacy competency standards for higher education. (2000).

Consequences of plagiarism for you?

Your institution or faculty will have a policy concerning this issue and the penalties may include the following:

  • a failing grade for your assignment;
  • a failing grade for the subject;
  • probationary status;
  • or even expulsion from the institution.
    (Source:; 2001) 


What is a paper mill?

You will find paper mills on the Internet. These are web sites that provide you with completed assignments - the only thing you have to do is to put your name on it and submit it as your own work. That is plagiarism.

It is important to note that it is very easy for a lecturer to find out whether your assignment came from a paper mill. There are sophisticated detection tools on the Internet that allow a lecturer to search for that assignment and because the assignment is on the Internet, it will be found. Detection tools and links to them will be discussed further on in this section.

What is copyright?

Copyright is part of a group of intellectual property rights, which provide legal protection to creators of works of the mind. Copyright in South Africa is governed by the Copyright Act No. 98 of 1978, as amended and the Regulations made in terms thereof and it grants owners of copyright (authors and other creators of intellectual property) the right to:

  • Reproduce the work;

  • Create derivative works based on the original work;

  • Distribute copies of the work;

  • To perform the work, or

  • To display the work in public.

(However, subject to certain conditions and within specific limits, the Act and Regulations afford the lecturer and the student the right to make copies of copyrighted works without obtaining permission).

What are the penalties for copyright infringement?

The author or holder of his/her licensee (in some cases) can take legal action where there is an infringement of his/her rights. The remedies provided include delivery of the infringing material, damages and an interdict preventing further infringement of his/her rights. The courts have the power to award additional damages where there has been a flagrant infringement of copyright.

The Copyright Act also makes provision for criminal penalties - a fine (of R5 000) and/or imprisonment of up to three years per infringement for a first conviction. The maximum fine and/or imprisonment penalty for second conviction is R10 000 and/or five years, per infringement.

Legal & Ethical Use of Information

After completing this SECTION, you will be able to:

  • access and use information ethically and legally by:
    • understanding plagiarism and
    • applying copyright law

What is plagiarism?

" Most simply, plagiarism is intellectual theft. Any use of another author's research, ideas, or language without proper attribution may be considered plagiarism." 
(Source:; 2001) 

"An adacemic malpractice. Plagiarism is the use of the ideas, words or findings of others without acknowledging them as such. To plagiarize is to give the impression that the student has written, thought or discovered something that he or she has in fact borrowed from someone else without acknowledging this in an appropriate manner".

It is unethical and illegal to submit someone else's work as your own - it is the same as stealing.

Plagiarism can take various forms. It can be blatant theft or accidental "borrowing". See the following examples:

  • You submit an assignment done by another student (or from a paper mill) as your own.
  • You pay another student to write an assignment for you and hand it in as your own work.
  • You copy and paste sections from someone else's work and add it to your work without acknowledging the source. 

Although this sometimes happens accidentally, it is still considered plagiarism:

  • You have done a lot or reading and made notes for your assignment. At some point you find a good idea between your notes, but you can't remember whether it was your idea or someone else's. If you submit this as your own work and it turns out that it was not your idea, you have committed plagiarism.
  • If you make use of someone else's work, you must make sure that you have the correct citation information and add it to your assignment. (Citing and referencing will be discussed in more detail in step 5 of this course.) 

(Source:; 2001)


Detection tools

There are certain detection tools available on the Internet to detect plagiarism in assignments. The following web sites will explain how to use these tools as well as where to find them:

  INTERNET LINK: if the computer is not linked to the Internet, you will not be able to access these web sites. This web site provides frequently-asked questions and answers, and explains how the detection tool can be used. This detection tool is available at
Detecting Plagiarism: - A quick guide for faculty (Iowa State University)(Dalhousie University Libraries) This web site provides some indicators to look for in the format, citation style and content of the assignment
Cheating 101: Paper Mills and You This web site provides a list of different detection sites.




Is there a legitimate exemption for teaching purposes?

The law permits the making of limited numbers of copies without copyright permission for the following purposes:

Research or personal or private use

For the purpose of research or private study, or for personal or private use Section 12 (1) of the Act allows the making of a single copy of a reasonable portion of a work, consistent with fair dealing. It is generally accepted that the copying of the whole or a major portion of the work in question is not reasonable and not compatible with fair dealing. The user may not make the copy available to others.

Copyright shall also not be infringed for the purposes of critical review or reporting of current events in a newspaper, film or broadcast.

Reproduction for Education

Section 12(4) of the Act allows a work to be used without permission for teaching purposes: "The copyright in a literary or musical work shall not be infringed by using such work, to the extent justified by the purpose by way of illustration in any publication, broadcast or sound or visual record for teaching: provided that such use shall be compatible with fair practice and that the source shall be mentioned as well as the name of the author if it appears on the work."

Multiple copies for classroom use

According to Regulation 2 the reproduction of a work in terms of section 13 of the Act shall be permitted if "the cumulative effect of the reproduction does not conflict with the normal exploitation of the work to the unreasonable prejudice of the legal interest and residuary rights of the author"

"Cumulative effect" is defined as:
"not more than one short poem, article, story or essay or two excerpts copied from the same author or more than three short poems, articles, stories or essays from the same collective work or periodical volume" and "no more than 9 instances of such multiple copying for one course of instruction to a particular class during any one term" may be made without copyright permission.

This can be interpreted as no more than 27 short poems, articles, stories or essays (but no more than 3 from the same periodical volume) taken from 9 different works, per term, per course.

However, the following shall be prohibited:

  • Copies may not be used to create or replace or substitute anthologies, compilations or collective works;
  • No copies may be made of or from works intended to be ephemeral, including workbooks, exercises, standardised tests and test booklets and answer sheets and similar ephemeral material (note: this does not include material issued by this Institution for teaching but would exclude the use of another Institution's material by our staff);
  • Copying may not:
    • be used as a substitute for the purchase of books, publishers' reprints, or periodicals; and

    • be repeated in respect of the same material by the same teacher from term to term.