9 January 2023

What happens when AI Generated essays amount to plagiarism?

OpenAI’s new baby

Previously we discussed the nuance in intellectual property laws when it comes to AI generated images.

In the latest discussions around AI generated intellectual property, AI generated dialogue or text has been making the headlines. OpenAI (the same company that created DALL-E 2 which was the subject of our previous blog) has created and released artificial intelligence called “ChatGPT”. This model or programme is intended to interact in a “conversational way”. According to OpenAI, “the dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer follow-up questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises, and reject inappropriate requests.” More than a million people used ChatGPT within five days post its launch last year.

How is ChatGPT being used?

In practice users have been utilising the prompts, dialogues, and interactions with ChatGPT to create full blown academic articles or essays in specific styles that would emulate Shakespeare’s voice or the writing style of a New Yorker essayist. There is a longer discussion to be had which, in my opinion, is far from ready to be tested around the ownership of such AI generated intellectual property. However, the plagiarism discussion around AI generated intellectual property, specifically with regards to these essays need to happen sooner rather than later.

Example of ChatGPT


– “explain why Shakespeare’s works had a significant impact on modern day literary works in the style of a college dissertation”


– “William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest playwrights in the history of English literature. His works have had a significant impact on modern day literary works in a number of ways.

First, Shakespeare’s plays are renowned for their enduring themes and universal appeal. Many of his plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello, deal with timeless themes such as love, jealousy, betrayal, and the human condition. These themes continue to resonate with audiences today, and his plays continue to be performed and adapted for modern audiences.

Second, Shakespeare’s works have had a significant influence on the development of the English language. He is credited with introducing thousands of new words and phrases into the English language, and his use of language is often seen as a model for writers today. His plays are known for their rich and varied use of language, and his ability to create complex and nuanced characters through dialogue has inspired many writers to follow in his footsteps.

Third, Shakespeare’s plays have had a lasting influence on the structure and form of modern literature. Many of his plays are structured around the idea of the “hero’s journey,” a narrative arc that follows the hero’s progress from a state of ignorance to a state of enlightenment. This structure has been widely emulated in modern literature, and many writers have drawn inspiration from Shakespeare’s use of character development and plot structure.

Overall, Shakespeare’s works continue to have a significant impact on modern day literary works due to their enduring themes, linguistic innovations, and enduring influence on the structure and form of literature.”

What is plagiarism?

In South Africa, plagiarism is in essence the act of infringing upon an author or creator’s intellectual property rights. In this regard it is important to know how text is protected in terms of the Copyright Act and to whom the rights reside. More specifically, such an infringement would amount to someone other than the copyright holders producing unauthorized adaptations or publications of a work without the permission of the copyright holder. Due to AI generated text relying on the existence of innumerous samples of text and styles online, does AI generated text inherently rely on plagiarism?

Protection – Copyright Act: Literary Work

In South Africa, the term “literary work” refers to, irrespective of literary quality and in whatever mode or form expressed, the following:

  • Novels, stories, and poetical works;
  • Dramatic works, stage directions, cinematograph film scenarios, and broadcasting scripts;
  • Textbooks, treaties, histories, biographies, essays, and articles;
  • Letters reports, memoranda; and
  • Lectures, addresses, and sermons.

Generally speaking, protection for Literary Work in this jurisdiction affords the author protection for their life plus 50 years following the death of the author or 50 years from the date of first publication, whichever is the later.

What’s the problem?

Humanities departments currently grade their student’s works on the basis of their essays. Furthermore, PhDs are granted on the basis of a dissertation’s composition and style. In these limited instances, it is very clear the dilemma that academia is about to reckon with regards to potential plagiarism allegations and the nuances discussion regarding the involvement of AI in the creation of these literary works.

What’s the solution?

In December 2023 a computer science student at Princeton University named Edward Tian created software called GPTZero which attempts to “quickly and efficiently” label literary work that is created by a person or by ChatGPT. Edward stated in an update on 5 January 2023 that over 3500+ people have joined the beta and over 10 000 have tried and tested the existing version. Tools like this might be a way in which AI generated text may be identified.

To combat the fears regarding plagiarism concerns, OpenAI has added that it would “watermark” ChatGPT output. However, watermarks are not full proof, and a software savvy user could find a programme to remove the unwanted watermark.

In the end it is important to remember that while this AI is sophisticated, it is not perfect. It is easily baffled by riddles and has been proven to make up facts. For example, a website called Stack Overflow has banned users from submitted ChatGPT generated text on their site. The Q&A site’s reasoning was that “while the answers which ChatGPT produces have a high rate of being incorrect, they typically look like they might be good, and the answers are very easy to produce.” Stack Overflow is a website which specializes in helping programmers solve coding problems. Their statement that ChatGPT’s answers have too low an average rate of getting correct answers should worry those who intend to rely too heavily on AI generated text.

– Christian Tabor-Raeside