Intellectual Property and Ownership

This resource was prepared by the Business Communications Lab at the Sam M. Walton College of Business
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Students entering American academia often encounter unfamiliar rules regarding intellectual ownership. Students who intend to follow all rules of their new school may still face difficulty adapting to these new rules, and they sometimes accidentally violate these academic rules. In American academia and business, a student or professional’s work—such as original writing, research, or art—is seen as property. Specifically, we call this intellectual property. The term intellectual property, also called intellectual ownership, signifies that someone owns both their ideas and the expression of their ideas. Copying someone’s work or conclusions in your own work is a violation of integrity standards, and can lead to real punishment. You can cite another person’s work in your own, but you can never use someone another person’s words, research, or original ideas without attribution. Be careful to avoid plagiarism.  

Intellectual Ownership Explored


What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property” refers to ideas or information that is owned by someone. We increasingly talk about advanced economies as information economies. This means that a country’s most valuable trade commodity is not any physical good, but rather the creation and management of data and knowledge. As such, professionals who conduct research or make creative works are seen as having ownership over their creations, because those creations are often how professionals earn an income. In most cases this ownership is protected by copyright law. Academia is an extension of the professional world. Therefore, academic work is held to the same standards as professional work, even if the work is only being performed for a course. To create a good with stolen components is an unethical practice. The same goes with creating an intellectual work. To perform academic work using another author’s original materials—without giving them credit—is seen as intellectual theft and is a violation of ethical standards in academia. In American academia, even if another author has perfectly expressed a correct answer to a question from your class, you are expected to create original work to answer that question yourself. You can quote the other author’s ideas or words, but the majority of your work must be original content.

Why is original work required?

American academia requires original work because it is a process-based education system. In your previous academic experience, you may be accustomed to seeking out correct information and copying it as your answer to a question. We call this results-based education. Perhaps a language teacher asks you to define the word “happiness.” In results-based education, you may go to the dictionary, find the definition, and copy that definition—”A state of well-being and contentment”—as your answer. In American academia, this answer would be as an integrity violation. That is because most American education is process-based. Most instructors are less concerned with students memorizing “correct” information. Instead, they are more concerned with you performing original thought to solve a problem or express an idea. We call this process critical thinking. Most instructors expect you to work on critical thinking problems for the majority of your academic work. In that case, you would not copy a definition, but would try to make your own. What is happiness? Perhaps you would write: “The emotion one feels during or immediately after a positive experience.” Is that the best answer? Maybe so, maybe not. What matters is that it answers the question and is original work based on your own thought. Original work helps your instructor track your personal thought process as you learn the concepts of the course. The goal in American academia is often to understand concepts behind the facts you will learn. Producing perfect work every time is not expected, and it is not the goal in most classrooms.

How can I ethically use someone else's work in my own work?

By using the right techniques, you can use the work of experts in your own work. In fact, incorporating other authors’ work in your class work—when properly marked and credited—is seen as a sign of good research. Your own content should comprise the majority of your work, but you should also consider citing sources. This shows a teacher that you have thought about a problem yourself, but you have also read what experts have to say on the topic. The Walton Business Communication Lab has a resource page dedicated to understanding why and how to properly incorporate sources into your work. View that page here.

What are the consequences of violating intellectual ownership standards?

Using another person’s intellectual property without giving credit has strict consequences at American universities. We call this unattributed usage of another person’s work “plagiarism.” Plagiarism can lead to failing an assignment, and can also lead to university-level discipline. The Walton Business Communication Lab has a resource page dedicated to understanding and avoiding plagiarism. View that page here.

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