Turnitin Found Not To Violate Student Copyrights

from the might-be-a-good-thing-for-Google... dept

Last year, we noted that some students were suing iParadigms, the makers of “Turnitin” the excessively popular plagiarism checker used by many colleges and high schools. The professors feed student papers into the system, and it returns a “score” judging how likely the paper is to be plagiarized. However, it also takes a copy of each paper and includes it in its database for future plagiarism checks. This annoyed quite a few students who felt that this was copyright infringement — using their papers in a commercial database.

However, a court has now rejected the students’ arguments and found that Turnitin does not violate the copyright of the students for a variety of reasons. First there is the fact that students had to agree to the terms of the service to use it — even if they were forced to by their schools. However, the court finds that this is a problem for the schools, not Turnitin. But, much more interesting is the rationale for why storing those papers is considered “fair use.” Among other things, the court found that Turnitin isn’t using the papers for their creative meaning and even though it stores the entire document, it doesn’t really publish a full copy of it for others to see.

That becomes especially interesting given the current lawsuit concerning Google’s scanning of books from various university libraries, as it may be able to note the similarities in this situation to Turnitin’s. There are some differences — and clearly, the publishers will claim that the impact on the commercial value is quite different (despite evidence to the contrary — but this ruling is likely to help Google’s position at least somewhat.

Filed Under: , , , ,
Companies: iparadigms

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Turnitin Found Not To Violate Student Copyrights”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
ReallyEvilCanine (user link) says:

Uhhh,,, Houston? I think we have a problem.

students had to agree to the terms of the service to use it — even if they were forced to by their schools

A coerced contract is invalid.

Turnitin isn’t using the papers for their creative meaning

Copyright isn’t about creativity, it’s about publishing, distribution and usage rights. This one should be smacked down quickly on appeal. Article 3 of the Berne Convention expressly addresses “works published with the consent of their authors“.

BTR1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Uhhh,,, Houston? I think we have a problem

> > A coerced contract is invalid.

> Right, but the court’s point is that the
> coercion is between the school and the student.

Which party the students have a cause of action against for the coercion is irrelevant to the issue of whether the coercion invalidated the contract.

A coerced contract is void as a matter of law Under the law, it’s as if no contract ever existed in the first place.

Turnitin should not be able to legally rely on a contract that never existed as its defense to a copyright infringement suit and the judge in this case needs to go back and take a first-year law school Contacts Law class because he’s obviously a bit rusty on the subject.

ehrichweiss says:

Re: Re: Re: Uhhh,,, Houston? I think we have a pro

No, that’s not entirely true because we’re “coerced” into other contracts all the time.

We are coerced into a contract with the State if we want a license to drive despite the fact that the Constitution states that it is a right(not privilege) to travel; they won’t let you ride your horse or a bicycle on the highway even though those are legit modes of travel so if one wants to travel 100 miles or more, you need a car. If you want to fly or ride a bus, you still need identification thanks to yet another contract we didn’t want…and to get that identification you have to sign into yet another contract(with unstated terms and conditions I might add).

And the reason they can get away with it is because you can only be coerced if you are being denied something that you have a Constitutional right to in the first place. You don’t have the right to attend a certain school, it’s a privilege and if you refuse to abide by their rules, they drop you.

Anonymamous Coward says:


i thought in the US you had to be of the age of majority for a contract to be binding? correct me if i’m wrong, but if i ask/force some pimply-faced kid to sign a contract to agree with something, then he fails to deliver, i wouldn’t be able to sue him since i entered into a contract with a minor. granted it’s not the spirit of what’s going on here, but the letter seems pretty clear to me. i’m neither a lawyer nor an american (canadian, eh?) so i might be way off base, but i watch enough judge judy to get the gist of it. oh yeah, and minors can’t sign binding contracts in canada.

Ryan says:

Re: Re: Consent?

Exactly. Not sure about how this would work with a public high school but with a college you are not forced to submit your paper, though you might not receive credit. When you enrolled yourself in the college you agree to their rules and policies. If you don’t agree with the rules and of the college then leave or petition to change the rules of the college.

Matt says:

Re: Re: Re: Consent? not quite

No, they were simply suing the wrong party is what the judge is saying Ryan. This happens all the time.

They are free to sue the schools, and I would suspect they will. This is indeed coerced. It’s not like this would be the first time that issues of copyright,freedom of speech, privacy etc comes up at a school anyhow.

ReallyEvilCanine (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Consent? not quite

While they clearly have a case against the school for unauthorised distribution, I think they also have a case against Turnitin for illegally obtaining and using their works. It could be popcorn time if the universities turn around and sue Turnitin for misleading them into believing the collection, distribution and transfer of students’ papers was legal.

ehrichweiss says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Consent? not quite

Clearly have a case for unauthorized distribution? Not as clear as you might think.

The place to look is at the contract between the students and the schools. Chances are they’re told that in order for their papers to count toward their grade, they have to allow it to be submitted to Turnitin. If that’s the case, there’s nothing that the students can do except refuse to take any classes that use the Turnitin service because that doesn’t fall under the legal definition of coercion since they’re not being denied a right granted by the Constitution; privilege: yes, right: no.

anti fascist girl says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Consent? not quite

Where do you get the idea that the legal definition of coercion must include being denied a constitutional right?
I don’t know for sure, but I don’t THINK coercion depends on constitutional rights denial alone. Even if it did, there is a constitutional right to privacy (too long a history and reasoning to recount). THere is also a constitutional right wherein governments are prohibited from arbitrary search and seizure of one’s personal papers (see fourth Amendment). Schools are governmental entities, and even colleges are government funded. Also, education is what is called a “positive right” in our country, meaning it is NOT a privilege but an actual right. Moreover, school is not just a right, but a requirement and children do not have the right NOT to attend school. And as far as college goes, if all of them do the same thing, there is no reasonable alternative (you can’t just say: “I don’t like this, I’ll just not turn in my paper and switch scools.”) It all adds up to coercion in my book and in any other reasonable person’s book.

BTR1701 (profile) says:


> the court found that Turnitin isn’t using the
> papers for their creative meaning

Since when is “creative meaning” an element of copyright infringement?

(That’s rhetorical– it’s not an element of the violation.)

This judge seems woefully misinformed on both Contract Law and Copyright Law. He’s doing a Judge Judy and replacing the result he desires with the result the law requires.

Eric the Grey says:

Re: Re:

It’s not just a matter of them keeping your paper. Their entire business is based on keeping your paper and comparing it to others. They make money off of the works submitted to them, and don’t pay the original creators. Sound familiar?

Plus, there are times when student papers are picked up for publication in books or anthologies. There IS the potential for the student to make money off of their works. I could see the potential of that being put in jeopardy if turnitin had a copy on file.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

They make money off running statistics on papers they keep. So I ask you again–so what?

I can’t see the potential of that being put in jeopardy. Just because turnitin had permission to keep your paper and run statistics on it doesnt mean you can’t tons of other things you might want to do with your paper. You think theyre going to publish a compendium of all the millions of papers that have been submitted to them? You think theyre going to look through those millions of papers and study them and find 1000 that are worth publishing?

Not going to happen. The paranoia surrounding this issue is on par with the most extreme conspiracy theories that I can think of and I still dont understand where its coming from.

anti fascist girl says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

It is an element of copyright infringement to make money from someone else’s work without permission. It does NOT MATTER why or how one goes about doing it. That used to be how they decided whether a copyright had been infringed upon- whether or not the borrower made money from it, via an unauthorized use of any kind of someone else’s protected work. That was changed by a computer software case, now you can be sued without even profiting in many cases. Also, a copyright is in existence the minute you create a work, without registering it with the copyright office first.

TBK says:

Re: It only goes to show..

“The little guys loose in the end.”

(That should be “lose”, as in win or lose, not “loose” as in tight or loose.)

“I’m just glad my school isn’t making use of any of these services.”

(I wish they would have taught you to spell or even how to use a spell check feature!)


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: It only goes to show..

Doesnt matter how smart you are, old age creeps up on you in the most sneaky ways even as early as your 20s and one of the first kind of senior moments you have are those apalling grammatical mistakes that you know are wrong and youre ashamed to be caught with. I’m sure thats the only problem here.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: It only goes to show..

Perhaps your school should make use of some “teach students some grammar” services, or maybe even just “loose vs. lose” pamphlets or something.

Sorry, I don’t mean to get snooty about language use, but if you’re commenting on an academic matter, at least make a little sense…

Bob says:

Re: It only goes to show..

Perhaps you should worry that your school doesn’t teach you the difference between “loose” and “lose”?

loose: not rigidly fastened or securely attached b (1): having worked partly free from attachments (2): having relative freedom of movement c: produced freely and accompanied by raising of mucus d: not tight-fitting

lose: : to undergo defeat in (For the usage you are apparently intending)

James says:

Personally, I don’t see the problem. If you are not plagrizing, then you should not worry. Turnitin is not making money by reselling papers or using any creative ideas in the paper (hence, no copyright issue). They are a repository where a computerized analyst (for lack of a better term) is comparing your paper versus papers in its database to ensure there is no plagrism going on.

If you don’t like it then change schools, however considering that plagrism is an increasingly major issue I don’t see schools hiring human paper checkers, when a central agency can do the same job.

Paul (profile) says:

As a student

I would demand Turnitin to remove the work with a DCMA take down notice, tell them im the origional owner of the work and that it even has my name on it.

Then they have to prove thay have permission from the copyright holder (me) that I gave the school permission to distrbuite my copyrighted works.

Now if I have to run it through turnitin myself to get credit then im not quite sure how this works other then what the guy said above.

“A coerced contract is invalid. “

Use turnitin or dont get credit sounds like it fits this catagory to me.

Glyons says:

Oh get over it.

Ok. Here is how the system works. Turnitin does not have access to the content of the work. The work yes but not really its content. There is no one at turnitin reading the paper. Copyright is to protect the use of someone creative endeavor from another stealing. If you read the agreements Turnitin makes with universities they state that they do not look at the work. It is an automated system and I doubt the computer cares how you feel about Jane Austin. This is NOT a transfer of ownership. The original creator has an id tag associated with it.

If you look at it properly, this is proof of creative development should someone later on duplicate your findings there is independent proof of your original development.

If you’re so worried then you should copyright every document you submit to your professors.

Sean says:

Re: Oh get over it.

“This is NOT a transfer of ownership”

In a way I think it is if I turn in an opinion paper this semester on Insurance companies and next semester have a class that I can reuse the paper for I do and 90% will be the same as my original one. If both teachers use turnitin.com the second one will have thought that I copied someones work and used it as my own. So then due to the site I have effectively lost ownership.

DanC says:

Re: Re: Oh get over it.

the second one will have thought that I copied someones work and used it as my own. So then due to the site I have effectively lost ownership.

You still haven’t lost ownership. A software program that says your paper was plagiarized does not constitute a transfer of ownership. You retain the rights to your work, although turnitin may have decreased the value of your work.

The court ruled correctly on this issue. The real question is whether or not a university or high school can mandate submitting a paper to turnitin for grading purposes.

Dan says:

My instructor in college insisted that we purchase a subscription to the service and submit our own papers. This was after our campus dropped the service. She just happened to work for the company too. Anyways I was the only one who refused to use the service. I got a D on my paper. I complained to the admin and they basically said that she didn’t do anything wrong. The bitch also threatened to sue me because I complained. I was able to drop that class luckily.

My advice is refuse to use this service. It doesn’t matter. They can’t fail every student.

Anonymous Coward says:

If you follow the money trail with this software it goes high up. Thomson publishing has a major financial connection with this service. They have renamed it “Insight”.

The court was wrong. The service would be useless if it did not have students papers.

The software really does not work either. It detects any 3 word combination and labels it as plagiarism. For example writing “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” would flag your paper as plagiarized because you had a 5 word string of plagiarized words.

Fuck the corrupt universities that use this.

Marj says:

Re: Re:

“For example writing “the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” would flag your paper as plagiarized because you had a 5 word string of plagiarized words.”

Turnitin does not identifying anything as plagiarism. It indicates matching text – it takes a human to identify whether the match is unproblematic, sloppy referencing, or plagiarism.

Informed says:

Uhhh,,, Houston? I think we have a problem.

Wow, you must be a pure sheeple. Court verdict is not always correct. Turn it in is commercial. Schools can use it only if they pay for its service. This is how Turn it in is actually selling the papers. That is against the copyright law. Court said its for educational purpose. In that case, turn it in should be non profit and not commercial. It looks like some big fish owns the site. That allows him to get away with his crimes. Students should start charging professors who use Turn it in.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...