Plagiarism Checker Sued For Copyright Infringement

from the irony-or-accuracy dept

Back in 2002 there was some discussion over whether or not, Turnitin, a popular plagiarism checker that many schools and universities use, was violating students' copyrights. The program worked by comparing any uploaded works to a large database of previous works. However, it would then add those new works to the larger database. Many students began to question not just why they were being treated as criminals first, but also why Turnitin was allowed to use their content in its database without first licensing the works from the students. While there had been occasional stories wondering something similar over the past few years, now it appears that two high school students have decided to step up and sue the company for copyright infringement. This could get interesting for a variety of reasons. The students clearly thought this out ahead of time -- registering the copyright on the papers, which gives them the ability to sue for statutory damages, rather than just be made whole. At least one also had explicit instructions in the paper that it not be included in the Turnitin database -- and those instructions were ignored. If Turnitin has registered under the DMCA, they could potentially claim safe harbor provisions (a la YouTube), pushing off the liability to the teachers and professors who actually uploaded the works, rather than Turnitin itself. However, it's not clear if the company will go that route or just claim that it's use isn't infringing at all. Either way, this should be an interesting case to follow.

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  1. identicon
    Neal, 30 Mar 2007 @ 9:00pm

    I think that's incorrect

    If I recall correctly, there have been rulings that commercial use doesn't absolutely invalidate fair use. In any case this is a very unique use and not one that copyright law likely covers.

    To give an example: I write a book on an obscure topic, I hold the copright. You purchase a copy of the book (I still own the copyright and control reproduction). You use your copy of the book to manually check against student papers on the subject and you charge for the service. You are using my work, under my copyright, in your commercial service - yet there is obviously no copyright violation, because there was no copying or distribution of my work.

    Ditto in this case, other than that by the submitter of the work.

    I suggest one possible outcome. The submitters will be the only one found to have *potential* liability, since they are the only ones to have made and distributed copies of the works.

    I also suggest that, across the board, no submitter will be found to have liability because 1) most schools and universities explicitly state that any papers submitted become property of the school 2) even if they don't it's well understood that works created under contracts for hire become property of the contractor and that assignment and the grade given in exchange is a contract for hire 3) most students are informed beforehand that their papers will be submitted, so by turning in a paper the give the chool/professor permission to submit said paper to the service to be used as it is. 4) That paper turned in to the professor is the electronic equivalent of that book. When the professor submits it he, in effect, loans out his one legal copy and provided he doesn't make or use the original again then no illegal copying takes effect.

    Of course the last argument is the most disputable and has the only precedent against it that I'm aware of, but I bet you could make this argument to most judges and juries and they'd buy it.

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