Turnitin won an important lawsuit recently when a U.S. federal judge ruled the anti-plagiarism program does not violate students’ copyright. U.S. District Court Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled against a group of four high school students who argued Turnitin violated their copyright by scanning and storing their essays in its database, and then used those essays as the basis for Turnitin’s business.
Turnitin, owned by iParadigms, is a popular tool for detecting plagiarism, and is widely used by American and Canadian universities and high schools. The system requires students to submit their essays to the program, where they are compared to essays in Turnitin’s database. The database includes internet sources, commercial databases and a massive collection of previously submitted papers. An originality report is produced for the professor. The submitted paper is then itself kept on file, enhancing the size and effectiveness of Turnitin’s database.
Judge Hilton ruled that Turnitin did not violate copyright laws because scanning the papers falls under the fair use provision. He wrote that the use of students’ essays “provides a substantial public benefit.”
The students say they plan to appeal the decision, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The four high school students sued Turnitin for $900,000 last year, arguing that their papers were used against their will to make a profit. Thousands of colleges and universities pay to use the service. The students had to agree to a mandatory clickthrough agreement with Turnitin when they submitted their papers.
Hilton dismissed most of the students’ arguments. He found that because student papers have no market value, Turnitin does not directly profit from them. He also noted that Turnitin does not distribute 100 per cent of the student’s work, except in rare cases when a professor requests the paper. He also wrote that Turnitin “makes no use of any work’s particular expressive or creative content beyond the limited use of comparison with other works.”
Judge Hilton also rejected the students’ claim that their papers had been used without their consent. However, the students were required by their high schools to submit their papers to Turnitin and would have failed their course had they not complied. But the judge wrote that Turnitin is not the source of this duress, rather the high school is.
The case is important because of its implications for other services that store and republish excerpts of a work. For example, Google News and Google Books include works in a database for search purposes, and republish a short excerpt.
Robert A. Vanderhye, a retired lawyer why took the students’ case on pro-bono, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the judge didn’t address all of their concerns. Specifically, he is concerned that Turnitin violates the students’ privacy laws by showing names and other personal information.