It's exam season, and many students out there will be tempted to pass off someone else's term paper as their own. And in the Internet age, copying and pasting has made plagiarism even easier. At the same time, Google searches have made catching plagiarists easier as well. So if you get caught plagiarizing someone else's work, are you going to jail?
Well, that depends on the context -- what were you plagiarizing and why? What were you trying to do with the plagiarized work? If you were trying to score an "A" on an exam, maybe not. If you were trying to score a job, maybe so. Let's take a look:
Cheating in Class
Generally speaking, copying another student's work won't lead to criminal charges, although you'll probably face discipline from the school which could include expulsion. And the further up the educational food chain you go, the more dire the consequences for plagiarism. Using someone else's research or ideas can tarnish your scholarly image and leave you with a stigma preventing a degree or a job after graduation.
More often than not, plagiarism includes ripping off someone's artistic work. Copyright laws protect the "original works" of authors, musicians, artists, photographers, and even software engineers, whether the work in question has been published or not. And you don't have to exactly duplicate someone else's work in order to infringe on their copyright: even taking a substantial portion of the copyrighted material could be a violation.
Most copyright claims are handled via civil lawsuits, so while ripping off another artist's work may not put you behind bars, it may be quite expensive.
There are some cases where plagiarism can become a crime. Most state laws prohibit fraud or forgery, so if you're trying to copy, fake, or pass off illegitimate official documents, you could be in trouble. And you can be arrested for lying on your resume, especially if you're making any false claims to the federal government.
The lesson here is to do your own work, because plagiarists always get caught in the end. If you've been accused of plagiarism, the circumstances could be serious, and you may need an experienced attorney on your side.