Turnitin vs intellectual property

In one word he told me secret of success
Let no one else’s work evade your eyes
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes
So don’t shade your eyes
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
Only be sure always to call it, please, ‘research’

— “Lobachevsky” by Tom Lehrer

A perennial problem with an electronic solution? On investigation an electronic solution raises many administrative issues such as student consent, intellectual property and copyright. Being a huge fan of Creative Commons and Open Source this looks like a problem to me.

Plagiarism program protest
Elisabeth Tarcia [1]
University students throughout the country have joined the RMIT Student Union in its push against the anti-plagiarism software turnitin.com.
The union claims the web crawling software – used by about 30 Australian universities – breaches the intellectual property rights of students.

Liz Thompson, a students’ rights officer at RMIT Student Union, says Turnitin is taking millions of previously submitted papers – where the copyright resides with the student author – and using them to make money without consent.
Any work submitted to Turnitin automatically becomes part of the company’s database.

The practice, she says, potentially breaches Australian Intellectual property laws.
“The main problem is if there was a dispute, then the work is outside of Australian copyright laws because the database is held in California, so it’s hard to know whether students can establish any rights.”

Lets look at why this is an issue;

… What makes it effective — but also controversial — is that it keeps the papers that colleges submit for inspection, in order to enlarge its database. Most other plagiarism-detection services, like Copycatch and Eve2, allow professors to run student papers through a computer program that checks for material copied off the Internet or for collusion among students.
Since those services don’t retain the submissions, the pool of manuscripts that papers are compared with is likely to be smaller than Turnitin.com’s, says Louis A. Bloomfield, a physics professor at the University of Virginia, who passionately defends both types of plagiarism-detection services. He created a computer program that finds shared passages among submitted papers but does not save them in a database.
Lawyers say the problem with Turnitin.com is that student papers are copied in their entirety to the services’ database, which is a potential infringement of students’ copyrights. (An author doesn’t need to file for a copyright; the law automatically bestows on authors the rights to their written works.) And the copying is sometimes done without students’ knowledge or consent, which is a potential invasion of their privacy. … [2]

And the company’s position;

… He [Mr John Barrie, Turnitin.com’s founder] also denies that the company is infringing on student copyrights — even if the students aren’t forewarned that their papers will be handed over to Turnitin.com — arguing that the service is simply making “fair use” of student works.
It’s an unusual rationale for commercial activity. Traditionally, the “fair use” exception to copyright law is cited by scholars who copy passages from books for their research, or by instructors who copy magazine articles for classroom use.

Dan L. Burk, who is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School who specializes in intellectual property, says of Mr. Barrie’s fair-use defense: “That’s baloney.” … [2]

The student papers are unpublished works that are being collected and then used to generate a profit, how does the ‘fair use’ claim stackup? It is not being used for reporting, it’s not education, or public use – it’s a pretty lonk bow to include this use as a ‘fair use’ category.

… Gathering the intellectual property of students for profit, without their permission, and assuming they’ll cheat is unfair. The whole Turnitin.com approach, an approach other Web-based detection services follow, is the wrong way to teach students about plagiarism, copyright, and intellectual property. … [3]

Turnitin are aware of the concerns and publishes Copyright and Privacy: Turnitin Promotes Fairness and Integrity [PDF] to rebut the intellectual property/copyright claims … Our service is 100 percent in compliance with all relevant laws of all the countries in which we operate … but claiming that Turnitin violates current laws or forces students to give up their copyrights is inaccurate.

Lets investigate this a bit further; if students do not want their copyrighted materials on Turnitins database, and the papers have been uploaded by a 3rd party, how is this compliant with copyright law? Imagine that the papers were MP3 files of music and the music was being hosted without consent, the fact that the files are not shared just removes a ‘piracy’ claim for distribution it does not diminish the breach of copyright.

Does it not seem a hypocritical stance taken by the educational institution that students intellectual property rights seem to be diminished in the rush to “stamp out plagiarism”? Why is it that the ethics of plagiarism differ from the ethics in respecting intellectual property?

Where do you stand on the issue?

[1] ‘Plagiarism program protest’ (5-FEB-2007) [The AGE]
[2] Plagiarism-Detection Tool Creates Legal Quandary (17-MAY-2002) [The Chronicle]
[3] Turnitin.com, a Pedagogic Placebo for Plagiarism [bedfordstmartins.com/technotes]
[4] Students Rebel Against Database Designed to Thwart Plagiarists (22-SEP-2006) [Washington Post]

This entry was posted in copyright and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Turnitin vs intellectual property

  1. McLean Students Sue Anti-Cheating Service
    Plaintiffs Say Company’s Database of Term Papers, Essays Violates Copyright Laws

    [Washington Post]
    Thursday, March 29, 2007; Page B05

    … “All of these kids are essentially straight-A students, and they have no interest in plagiarizing,” said Robert A. Vanderhye, a McLean attorney representing the students pro bono. “The problem with [Turnitin] is the archiving of the documents. They are violating a right these students have to be in control of their own property.” …

  2. Stephen says:

    I beleive that TurnItIn will be in very hot water. I personally beleive that the students will win, and that TurnItIn should give students the option to have their papers purged at the end of the course they are in, an option to disable e-mailing the work to other teachers if TurnItIn detects plagarism, an option to allow the student who wrote the paper multiple uses of his/her work, and schools should allow a student to have his/her paper checked the old fashioned way if they are concerned over TurnItIn’s use of their work.

  3. Pingback: Copyright Revewals » Turnitin vs intellectual property Visible Procrastinations

  4. iParadigms, the company behind the turnitin plagiarism detection service, has received a summary judgement in its favor in a case resulting from students that were upset by its ability to perpetually store their term papers. According to the judge, detection of plagiarism has a transformative value that makes it fair use. — (2008-Mar-26) John Timmer [Ars Technica]


  5. A federal appeals court granted a boost to fair use advocates Friday when it ruled that an online cheating-detection service storing thousands of student essays did not violate the intellectual property rights of the essayists.

    Students who claimed Turnitin.com breached their copyrights because it placed their works in its database brought the lawsuit. The site compares new essays submitted by teachers with a database of other essays to determine whether plagiarism was at work. …

    Fair Use Bolstered by Student-Cheating Detection Service (2009-Apr-17) [Wired: Threat Level]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.