Court rules Turnitin doesn't violate copyright

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A recent court decision from the state of Virginia ruled the plagiarism-detection software offered by Turnitin.com does not violate student copyright laws.

Despite claims the website exploits student submissions for profit, the widely-used anti-cheating program will continue archiving academic works from high schools and universities around the world " including papers from Western students.

Last year, four American high school students sued Turnitin.com, owned by iParadigms, for archiving essays without permission.

Two weeks ago, the $900,000 lawsuit was thrown out by U.S. District Court Judge Claude M. Hilton, because the website defers liability in its terms of use agreement.

In an official statement, Hilton explained the ruling: “Though iParadigms makes a profit in providing this service to educational institutions, its use of the student works adds a further purpose or different character to the works ... and provides a substantial public benefit.”

Because students create a profile and submit works individually, all users are forced to agree to terms of use.

Mark Perry, computer science and law professor at Western, explained: “The student, in order to submit to Turnitin.com, must complete a profile, and therefore must agree to the terms of use through a click-through contract,” he said.

“The judge therefore ruled iParadigm is not liable for copyright infringement in this case,” Perry added.

Critics of the ruling argue students were forced to accept Turnitin.com’s terms of use, due to course requirements.

“Students really are not in much of a position to do anything except agree,” Samuel Trosow, a law professor, said calling judge Hilton’s ruling an oppressive decision.

“The problem with Turnitin.com, is it doesn’t just check student papers for cheating,” he said. “The software appropriates student papers, and uses their creative output to expand [the Turnitin.com] database.”

“The value of the corporation is based on the number of papers in this database,” Trosow added.

Furthermore, Trosow said the students involved in the lawsuit were in high school, and were unfit to enter such a binding contract. “There is something very wrong with telling children they have to sign a contract that they’re in no position to understand.”

Fourth-year management and organizational studies student Andrew McDonald said he had no qualms with the anti-plagiarism software.

“Yeah, I’ve used [Turnitin.com]. I haven’t had a problem; it’s easy to submit online,” he said.

However, McDonald noted he was not at all familiar with the terms of use agreement.

“You mean the big list of crap you’re supposed to read and click next? No, I didn’t read it.”

Although the ruling may set a precedent in the U.S., Trosow assured a similar decision would not be made in Canada. “We shouldn’t pay too much attention. Canadian courts seem to be much more concerned with mutual consent.”

Perry maintained there are two sides to the argument. “Digitization of academic materials makes it easier to engage in cheating and plagiarism,” he said. “Tools [like Turnitin.com] are used to counteract these trends ... But in the process we end up removing some rights from students.”

“There’s a balance to be struck,” Perry concluded.

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