Plagiarism or Just Good Use of Resources?

In April 2002, I received the following letter:

Dear Dr. Lee,

My name is XXXX and I am the pastor at ZZZZ Baptist Church in ZZZZ, VA. I spoke with Mrs. Sandra Birch about a problem we were having with two of our young people. She suggested that it may be something in which you would be interested and also something in which you may offer some assistance. Let me briefly state the problem

Last year, a young lady in our youth group was asked to design a web site for the local school system. After she completed it she took it to a young man in our youth group to burn it onto a CD to give to the school. It seems that not only did he burn a copy to give to the school, he also burned one for himself. For unknown reasons, the school did not put her work on the web. This year, he was asked to do a website for the school. He did so but used the young lady's work as his foundation and did not give her any credit for any of the work she did.

His position is that her work was actually property of the school, it never appeared on the Web; even if it had appeared, everything on the Web is public domain unless it specifically says it is copyrighted; at no time did the young lady copyright her work; and he changed the majority of the contents. Therefore, he has done nothing illegal and, it follows, nothing wrong.

The young lady, however, contends that it is unethical. She went to the school administration. They talked to the young man and he stated that he would leave her name on everything on which it originally appeared. This was of little consequence since her name did not appear on any page. This response from the administration does not surprise me. In an unrelated incident this young man was caught hacking into the schools computer system and changing grades. The extent of his punishment is the administration called him in and told him not to do it again. I think this is partially because he is among the "best and brightest," partially because of the publicity, and partially because they did not want to deal with his father, a type A personality who believes his son can do no wrong (which is part of the problem).

From my experience, we were told very strongly during my doctoral work that everything, published or not, had to be cited in any work we did. This included anything gleaned from the dissertations of others, lectures, etc. Any breach of this was a serious violation of the honor code resulting in an F for the course and placement on academic probation for the first violation. The second violation was expulsion from the program.

So why have I come to you with this? First, this young man is intelligent and has tremendous potential. I do not wish to see him throw it away with a bad choice or erroneous assumption. Second, it is causing friction in the youth group. Third, he will be one of your students next fall. My desire is not to cause him problems but to save him from them. All I desire from you is a statement regarding the ethics of this situation based on your knowledge of the facts and possibly a statement regarding what would happen at Virginia Tech had this situation happened there.

Thank you very much for you time and consideration in this matter.

In Him,


How would you respond to this inquiry?

Last updated 2002/04/17
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