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
    nick, 2 Apr 2007 @ 10:53am

    If Turnitin looses, so does Book Search

    I'm a law student and I've been very interested in this story b/c I find it fundamentally unfair to students for a company to take their papers, put them into a database, and then start charging fees for plagiarism scanning. But this sense of injustice is fueled more by my impression of students being screwed than any legal objections.

    In fact, if Turnitin is violating the students' copyrights, then for sure Google is violating the copyrights of authors when they scan books for Book Search. I fully support Book Search and buy into Google's fair use/opt out position. The two programs are very similar in how they are run if you check the Turnitin webpage, in that both scan the works to be put into a database and both return limited clips based on search terms (not whole papers).

    Plus, Turnitin has a DMCA policy that allows students to have their papers removed from the database. If these students have an issue with the service, then they should send in DMCA notices and get them removed. If the DMCA exists, shouldn't we follow it? Isn't the refusal to follow the DMCA one of the weak points in Viacom's lawsuit against YouTube? On this point, the students' argument sounds much like what the Author's Guild argues against Google.

    There are plenty of differences with Turnitin that raise red flags (ie. they charge people for the service and arguably induce teachers to send in papers), but I haven't read the complaint fully (can anyone else find a copy of it and post it??) so perhaps Turnitin is not making a fair use or falls outside the DMCA safeharbors. However, it's always nice when people are consistent with their positions. So if you support the legal positions of Book Search and YouTube you might also need to support Turnitin.

    As one last note, I see the teachers and schools in being in a bit more precarious position than Turnitin. If the comparison between it and Book Search is valid, which I think it is, then the question is whether the teachers have the right to submit these papers. I do not think they do, nor should they. The free speech rights of students don't end at the school door and neither should their copyrights. After all, how are we to train a generation to respect copyright law if the schools charged with the task of turning them into good citizens plays fast and loose with these important rights. I'm not so sure Turnitin is in the wrong here, but a more compelling case can be made against the schools and teachers signing up for this service, but the day that students sue their teachers for copyright infringement might be the day when we know copyright law is going too far.

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