Turnitin win copyright decision in US

A group of students have finally lost their case against plagiarism detection service Turnitin with the judgement that Turnitin does not breach students’ copyright by retaining copies of submitted essays.  In particular, The Chronicle reports that

the district-court judge said Turnitin’s actions fell under fair use, ruling that the company ‘makes no use of any work’s particular expressive or creative content beyond the limited use of comparison with other works.’  He also said the new use ‘provides a substantial public benefit.’

While the reasoning is clear, I have always felt a bit uncomfortable about the tension between the undoubted benefits to be gained from Turnitin and the fact that, as a commercial company, Turnitin’s parent company iParadigms is undeniably profiting, albeit indirectly, from other people’s intellectual property.  However, institutions frequently claim IPR rights to their students’ work, and understandably see considerable benefits from requiring the submission of essays to Turnitin.

Plagiarism is undoubtedly a serious issue facing HE, but I think my biggest issue with this is the way in which so many institutions choose to use Turnitin exclusively as a tool to detect and evidence plagiarism.  There is an assumpation inherent in this approach that all students may attempt to cheat.  Retaining papers once they’ve been checked for plagiarism for adding to the database also suggests an assumption that students cannot be trusted not to pass their work on to others.

Other institutions take a more collaborative approach, allowing students to submit their work multiple times to Turnitin and using it as a teaching aid to help students avoid indirect plagiarism and learn how to better develop their essay writing and argumentation skills and understand their relationship to their research sources.  In this approach, all students receive a direct benefit from the software, profiting significantly as learners and writers, and those who may be tempted to intentionally plagiarise may look for other ways to cheat instead.

4 thoughts on “Turnitin win copyright decision in US

  1. What’s worse is how instructors are clueless to the property right implications. Example, here’s an instructor who, on Twitter, declares that she is going to use TurnItIn because “I will NOT have time to worry about copycats.” http://twitter.com/sharynjoy/statuses/3146972130

    Essentially, this instructor is saying “I am going to require all of my HONEST students to permanently archive their work FOREVER on servers of questionable security, because I ‘don’t have time'”. This is lame.

    Honest Students should NOT be punished, and should retain the right to destroy their papers FOREVER at the end of the term. In fact, destroying the papers would assure that they can’t be copied – FAR better than archiving them forever on crappy Internet-based servers.

    Read the terms of that TurnItIn Contract! They admit that they cannot secure them from hackers and require an irrevocable permanent license to be able to store AND SELL the papers.

    It’s a bad deal for your honest students, teachers! WAKE UP!

    Don’t use TurnItIn because you are too lazy, or don’t “have time to worry about copycats.”

  2. I don’t think the reasoning is clear at all that Turnitin should have won this case had it not settled.

    For anyone interested in reading why the students should have won I suggest reading http://www.iposgoode.ca/2009/06/us-circuit-court-of-appeals-rules-that-turnitins-fight-against-plagiarism-does-not-violate/ or the paper available for download at http://ssrn.com/author=1259310

    I wrote both articles after extensive research into copyright and fair use laws and not merely in response to a news article. The students have a strong case and I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this debate.

  3. @Stephen Sharon
    That’s a very interesting article, and I do sympathise with the students’ case. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

    Certainly here in the UK many institutions (like the one linked in the article) require students to assign IPR for their work to the university. The policy linked justifies this partly so that ‘there is parity of treatment between students and staff in relation to IPR’, but there seems to me to be a big difference between work produced by staff who are paid by the university, and by students who pay (directly or indirectly) to be there. I think that by claiming IP rights over students’ work, universities might feel that some of these issues (not including any copyright issues) are moot, but the whole issue of universities claiming these rights is something I also feel is worth looking at.

    The fact that Turnitin is run commercially rather than as a non-commercial service of some kind makes me more uncomfortable about the whole thing.

    However, I’m definitely not a lawyer, and I do think that if Turnitin is going to be with us for some time we could at least look at ways that students can actually benefit from it through its use as a teaching aid.

    I hope you’re right that the debate will continue as I do feel it’s a debate that is needed; it would also be interesting to see how it’s addressed in Scots and English law as well as US.

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