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Students Sue Anti-Plagiarism Service 713

Posted by Zonk
from the students,-regrettably,-rarely-have-a-lot-of-rights dept.
jazzbazzfazz writes "It seems that some students in Virginia are not happy with the anti-plagiarism service Turnitin. The company checks prose submitted by its customers for signs that it has been copied in whole or part by comparing it to a large database of works that it maintains. Trouble is, it also adds the submitted prose to its files and stores it for use by the company in future scans, which the students feel is illegal use of their copyrighted materials. I think they've got an excellent case, especially since they seem to have prepared for this eventuality: they're A-students, never been accused of plagiarism, and they formally copyrighted their papers prior to their submission to Turnitin."
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Students Sue Anti-Plagiarism Service

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  • First Post (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:53PM (#18534579)
    First post! Oh shit, I plagiarized this.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:55PM (#18534617)
      First post! Oh shit, I plagiarized this.

      (c) Anonymous Coward 2007. All rights reserved.
      • by 'nother poster (700681) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:00PM (#18534735)
        No, you didn't! It's obviously fair use.

        And that is what the company will claim, or the school will claim copyright since the schoolwork was OBVIOUSLY a work for hire.
           
        • by Kadin2048 (468275) <slashdot DOT kadin AT xoxy DOT net> on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:17PM (#18535095) Homepage Journal
          I don't think the fair use defense is going to hold water. The situations in which you can claim fair use are pretty slim; a for-profit service, who is obviously deriving some economic benefit by using somebody else's copyrighted paper (by adding it to their database) is probably not going to qualify. I'm not sure what harm the students can claim, but if they have any decent lawyers at all, they'll find some way of doing it.

          I actually wouldn't mind if it was covered under Fair Use, because I think that's something we could really do with broadening, but the law as written today wouldn't cover it.

          Now, what I think will happen, is that Turnitin will advise its clients (schools, universities, etc.) that in order to use the service, they must obtain a release from students that includes permission to upload the files. This way, they'll just offload the responsibility for copyright infringement off on the schools, who will just force students to release their work, or refuse to give them a grade.

          I don't think it'll be very long before, when you apply to a college or university, you also sign away all rights to everything you think, say, or do while you're there, in perpetuity, in any medium whatsoever. They'll just make it part of the admissions contract, and that will be it -- at least for private schools and colleges. I'm not sure what legal grounds you would get into with public schools, and whether they could force students to do that or not.

          But I think the students in the Turnitin case, have just as much if not more grounds than the plaintiffs in the similar cases of book publishers vs. Google. (Actually, I think Google has a much better Fair Use defense than Turnitin does.)
          • by msblack (191749) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:09PM (#18535949)

            Now, what I think will happen, is that Turnitin will advise its clients (schools, universities, etc.) that in order to use the service, they must obtain a release from students that includes permission to upload the files. This way, they'll just offload the responsibility for copyright infringement off on the schools, who will just force students to release their work, or refuse to give them a grade.
            What you state is already the case. Professors will refuse term papers
            unless submitted through Turn-it-In which provides ample disclaimers.
            Students should be complaining to the school district for forcing them
            to give up rights to their paper. However, this is unlikely to succeed.
            At the University, only faculty own their research. Students and employees
            get no rights. Even student thesis papers belong to the University, not
            the student.

            • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:47PM (#18536569)
              Maybe where you live, but not in the US. Go here [umuc.edu] for a collection of University policies on ownership of copyrights. You'll find few, if any, claim student works.
              • by happyemoticon (543015) on Friday March 30, 2007 @02:01AM (#18540031) Homepage

                At the University of California, the same applies. A work is not the property of the University unless they sponsor, commission, or contract it: http://www.ucop.edu/ucophome/coordrev/policy/8-19- 92att.html [ucop.edu] .

                And just to riff off of the general subject, I think it's absurd to demand that students' papers be put in some company's database. Colleges and corporations alike have not hereto proven the most responsible or effective guardians of people's valuable personal information. These policies also take a stance which tacitly assumes that students are cheaters. And just like any good witch hunt, if you have a problem with it, people start wondering what you have to hide.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by xeoron (639412)
              My few cents: This still would not cover them storing copies of papers and other content from their webcrawlers. I have no problem search-engines storing my work in a search-cache, but I do not like turnitin holding copies of my work, and so far their webcrawlers still do not comply with a my sites htaccess, nor offer a easy way to contact them to stop indexing a site and purge copies they stored within their database via their own website. I suppose I could configure a webserver to ban their spiders, but I
          • by thpr (786837) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:20PM (#18536105)
            I'm not sure what harm the students can claim, but if they have any decent lawyers at all, they'll find some way of doing it.

            The 'harm' is violation of 17 USC 106(1) - their exclusive right to copy their works. You don't have to hurt the owner financially to violate copyright law - financial impact is part of damages, not part of guilt.

            As far as damages, copyright violation doesn't have to involve actual monetary damages, there are also statutory damages for where the actual damages are not significant (see 17 USC 504(c)).

          • by CodeBuster (516420) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:39PM (#18536429)
            I don't think the fair use defense is going to hold water.

            I agree...The courts have ruled in several different cases (not a legal scholar so unable to site the specific cases) that copying of an original work (article, essay, book, etc...), or even a critical portion thereof (as demonstrated with Gerald Ford's book concerning the Nixon Pardon), exactly as it was presented in the original work, even for purposes of subsequent commentary, still constitutes infringement of copyright and is not protected under fair use. In addition, due to the efforts of the RIAA over the years, it does not matter if one intends to "redistribute" the work or not (i.e. a copy made to share with your friends for free or even one made for personal use, as in the mixed tape for example), it is *still* copyright infringement. It should be noted that the courts have left it purposefully ambiguous so that each case is decided separately by a judge, but the precedents are strongly against Turnitin for maintaining whole copies of student papers, if indeed that is what they do (cryptographic hashing may be an interesting question if that is also going on), in their database and it doesn't matter if they show those papers to anyone or not, the very fact that there are copies in the database is enough to trigger copyright.

            a for-profit service, who is obviously deriving some economic benefit by using somebody else's copyrighted paper (by adding it to their database) is probably not going to qualify.

            Absolutely...this only adds to the prejudice that any reasonable judge would have against their fair use defense, especially in light of the reasons stated above.

            I actually wouldn't mind if it was covered under Fair Use, because I think that's something we could really do with broadening, but the law as written today wouldn't cover it.

            Perhaps the RIAA will actually write a "friend of the court" brief in support of the students to prevent that from happening (they wouldn't want that type of fair use precedent established in the common law). They say that litigation often makes for some strange bedfellows after all.

            Now, what I think will happen, is that Turnitin will advise its clients (schools, universities, etc.) that in order to use the service, they must obtain a release from students that includes permission to upload the files. This way, they'll just offload the responsibility for copyright infringement off on the schools, who will just force students to release their work, or refuse to give them a grade.

            I am not sure if the students can be compelled to do that since it could be argued that they entered into the contract under duress of not getting a grade and thus a degree. Even if this is effective, it would only prevent future claims, but the ones currently working their way through the system would still be valid and thanks to the RIAA the price per infringement is quite high, on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars per infringement which could make for a fairly spectacular judgment or at least a hefty settlement (bye bye student loans).

            I don't think it'll be very long before, when you apply to a college or university, you also sign away all rights to everything you think, say, or do while you're there, in perpetuity, in any medium whatsoever.

            Contract law is not omnipotent, if they make the contract overly broad then the contract can be dissolved by the courts or at the very least, assuming the contract is well written, the offending parts could be severed from the agreement (the court decides which language is struck) and dissolved while leaving the remainder of the contract, if anything does remain, intact.

            But I think the students in the Turnitin case, have just as much if not more grounds than the plaintiffs in the similar cases of book publishers vs. Google. (Actually, I think Google has a much better Fair Use defense than Turnitin does.)

            The students do indeed have a stron
          • by tres3 (594716) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:59PM (#18536729) Homepage
            Now where this will get interesting is that as high school students they are still underage and as such cannot enter into a legal agreement without the consent of their parents (or guardian but that is usually the parents) so the school can try to force this on the students but it wouldn't be binding. Now what happens if the student is a ward of the state? If the state forces them to sign away their rights to personal property that can be considered a taking and subject to eminent domain or reimbursement by the government. In fact that argument could probably be extended to any public school or university that demands that you sign it over to get a grade. the government simply cannot take private property without reimbursement.
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by DoofusOfDeath (636671)

            I don't think it'll be very long before, when you apply to a college or university, you also sign away all rights to everything you think, say, or do while you're there, in perpetuity, in any medium whatsoever.

            I know that some universities put a claim on most of your school-related IP creation hidden in the recesses of a document that you never sign. I'll be interested to see that challenged, since when you join a university you're typically agreeing to abide by their student handbook, but you DON'T typica

  • by jhfry (829244) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:56PM (#18534643)
    I realize that it does indeed violate their copyright, but as a student, wouldn't you want your paper in their catalog so that some lazy student can't make it through school by plagiarizing YOUR work?

    I don't know about these students, but when I was in school nothing bothered me more than students asking to see my answers, cheat off my tests, or read my essays for 'inspiration'.

    But then again, it is a violation all the same. I say if it bothers them, go for it the law is on their side.
    • I realize that it does indeed violate their copyright, but as a student, wouldn't you want your paper in their catalog so that some lazy student can't make it through school by plagiarizing YOUR work?

      I guess that would depend mainly on how much you were able to sell your paper for.
    • You're asking the wrong question. The question is not "why wouldn't you want to deter cheaters from using your work". The question is "why would you want to let other people make money off of deterring cheaters by using your work - without you seeing a penny of the profit".

      In essence, Turnitin is making a good deal of money by using other people's work. If those people want a cut of the proceeds, I don't see a problem with that.
    • by mandelbr0t (1015855) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:34PM (#18536333) Journal
      I simply don't trust these large collections of private information. Who knows what they will do with it? Privacy Policy?

      As we continue to develop our business, we might sell or buy businesses or assets, or Turnitin might be acquired by another company. In any of those circumstances, personal information in our databases may be included among the transferred assets.
      Sweet. There's the loophole. They just have to go out of business or get bought by someone who doesn't have the same privacy policy, and another company has a large sample of your creative work with which to do whatever they want, as long as they don't get caught infringing your copyright.

      I don't trust privacy policies. There's no laws that can be enforced if the company in question violates their own policy, and it's ridiculously hard to prove it even if they did. And, as you can see here, most privacy policies have a not-difficult-to-imagine scenario which would involve complete loss of control of the private information you did provide. I'd like to see more work done on making companies stick to their privacy policies, and large fines or jail time if they don't.
  • Terms of Service (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lockejaw (955650) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:56PM (#18534653)
    Do the terms of service say anything about assigning the copyright to Turnitin? Or perhaps expressly allowing this use? If so, is that enforceable given that the school (probably) required students to use Turnitin?
    If not, does this constitute fair use? I would argue that it doesn't, since Turnitin is doing it for commercial gain.
    • by t0rkm3 (666910) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:01PM (#18534767)
      And the greater question is... Is it an undo burden by the school on the student? Can the school legally force the student to consign their work to the intellectual property of a non-public third party?
      • Re:Terms of Service (Score:5, Interesting)

        by ukyoCE (106879) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:24PM (#18535223) Journal
        Wish I had mod points...parent and grandparent are hitting at the real issue here. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the site has covered its own ass already by having the EULA/TOS say "ALL YOUR PAPERS ARE BELONG TO US".

        The real questions involve the fact that teachers are submitting papers which are not their own IP to the site. Perhaps the teachers or school system can be held liable for copyright infringement, or some sort of fraud for claiming ownership of the copyrighted work of others?
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Firehed (942385)
          Well not necessarily - my school makes me submit my own papers (presumably to get around this issue), but it doesn't change the fact that if I don't do it, I get a zero on the paper. Which I'm sure is equally illegal, but probably under racketeering or blackmail laws rather than copyright infringement.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by YoJ (20860)
          I'm an instructor for a university. The general principle that universities use is that anything you turn in, you assign copyright to the university. This means the instructor can use turnitin without violating copyright law. Is it right to require students to give up copyright over their own work? I don't agree with it, but it's not unreasonable. Most assignments are similar to "work for hire", written to a specification of someone else for a particular purpose (in this case, grading).

          For public schoo
          • by zCyl (14362) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @09:03PM (#18537903)

            The general principle that universities use is that anything you turn in, you assign copyright to the university.

            By "general principle" I think you mean someone in a university legal department made this up. Since there is no student salary, this is clearly not a work done for hire. So show me a legally enforceable document that students sign which actually transfers this ownership.
          • by gr8_phk (621180) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @09:10PM (#18537945)

            The general principle that universities use is that anything you turn in, you assign copyright to the university.
            Bullshit. I never heard of a uni require a student to sign a copyright assignment agreement. nor did I sign one.

            This means the instructor can use turnitin without violating copyright law.
            Um no. Not without a signed legal document.

            Is it right to require students to give up copyright over their own work?
            No.

            I don't agree with it, but it's not unreasonable.
            Glad you don't agree, but it IS unreasonable. Imagine a "writer" teaching a literature class and snaging ideas from a few good students papers. Is that right? Aside from this potential abuse, is there ANY legitimate reason to require a student to assign copyright to the school? Just remember that the school doesn't have a place where they archive all these exciting papers they get. The prof normally grades then and gives them back.

            Most assignments are similar to "work for hire", written to a specification of someone else for a particular purpose (in this case, grading).
            Back to Bullshit again. No one is paying the student. In fact, the student is paying for an education.
    • Re:Terms of Service (Score:5, Interesting)

      by gurps_npc (621217) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:21PM (#18535169) Homepage
      The Terms of Service are irrelevant.

      Normal use of this service is by the TEACHER, not the writer. The teacher does NOT have the legal authority to assign the copyright to Turnitin.

      I am sure that the kids took the precaution of having Student A write the paper and Student B submit it, so that there particular law test case will work.

      • Re:Terms of Service (Score:5, Informative)

        by sinclair44 (728189) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:33PM (#18535387) Homepage
        Have you ever actually used the service, or are you talking out of your ass?! As a high-school Senior who's been required to use this since my Sophomore year, I know how it works, and it's nothing like that: the teacher only checks the marked paper (e.g. what sections TurnItIn thinks are plagarized); the student is the one that submits the paper, through their account, to the service. Usually, said submitting is a requirement to actually receive any credit for the paper. (To see one of your papers marked up like that is actually really cool, though quite infuriating that they're using my work for massive profit. Not sure if it's illegal, or even if it should be, but annoying nonetheless.)
        • Re:Terms of Service (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Kadin2048 (468275) <slashdot DOT kadin AT xoxy DOT net> on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:44PM (#18535607) Homepage Journal
          If that's how it's typically used (and it's not clear in TFA's case whether the teachers/professor submitted the papers, or if the students were required to do it themselves), then the question is whether students at a public highschool can be required to surrender their rights to their own intellectual property in order to receive a grade in a required course.

          This is a sketchier argument; in general, most courts in the U.S. have given public schools fairly broad powers to compel students to do anything they want out of them, except where there's a straightforward Constitutional issue (school prayer, vaccinations, etc.).

          In order to make that into a tryable case, some student might have to be willing to really sacrifice themselves; write nothing but grade-A papers, but refuse to submit them to Turnitin and wait for the teacher/school to fail them in a required course and prevent them from graduating. That ought to be actionable, since it's easier to see what the damages are; when the damages are just the loss of exclusive rights to your 11th grade English paper on Hamlet, it's not as compelling.
  • by jessecurry (820286) <jesse@jessecurry.net> on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:57PM (#18534663) Homepage Journal
    Last year a big group of people submitted rough drafts to our instructor, they were all run through the system. Then, we submitted our final papers, they were run through the system too, but the second time the class had 30 students that were shown to plagiarize. It really needs work, I understand what they are doing, but the implementation steps on a lot of toes.
  • by lakeland (218447) <lakeland@acm.org> on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:57PM (#18534669) Homepage
    This is identical to Google Book search. You may copy text for all sorts of protected purposes.
    I hope it is thrown out while leaving plenty of egg on the students' faces.
    • Say what?! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:06PM (#18534895)

      A "clear case" of fair use? It's copying the entire work, and it's doing it for commercial purposes. That's the worst possible result on two of the four criteria, before we even start on the others.

      And how is this at all the same as Google's book search?

      • Re:Say what?! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by mrchaotica (681592) * on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:13PM (#18535031)

        It's copying the entire work, and it's doing it for commercial purposes.... And how is this at all the same as Google's book search?

        Google book search also copies the entire work, and does it for commercial (advertising) purposes.

        I'm not sure why I had different initial opinions in the two cases (for Google but against Turnitin), but I have to admit the cases are pretty damn similar.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Kalriath (849904)
          But Google Book Search allows publishers to contact them to opt out. This service does not. Correlation failed.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by RedWizzard (192002)

            But Google Book Search allows publishers to contact them to opt out. This service does not.
            Irrelevant. Saying "you could have told us not to" or "you could have asked us to cease and desist" is not a defense against copyright infringement. Otherwise I could copy DVDs to my hearts content and defend myself from prosecution by simply giving the publishers a chance to opt out. That is not going to hold up in court.
    • by metlin (258108) * on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:11PM (#18534989) Journal
      While I won't repeat what others have said, bear in mind that one of the essays had an explicit notice forbidding them from archiving it, but Turnitin went ahead and did it anyway.

      And secondly, the company is making money using the content from the students.

      How is any of that fair use?

      Not to mention that these systems are used by people assuming that all students cheat, which is bad to begin with. So much for morale.
    • by bigbigbison (104532) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:14PM (#18535045) Homepage
      First off, there have been a lot of legal rumblings about google's book search. Google has modified it so that they no longer have the whole book online unless the publisher allows it or it is out of print. If you want your book out of it, there is a way to do so http://books.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answ er=43756&topic=9011 [google.com] Turnitin has no such opt out process.
      Secondly Google offers this as a free service. Although it has ads, there are also links to several book sellers which would allow the person who wrote the book and the publisher to get a sale from it. Turnitin is not a free service. They are directly profiting from the work of college students who do not and cannot see any monetary reward from their work being forcefully included in the turnitin database.
      It doesn't sound the same at all to me.
  • Totally agree (Score:4, Informative)

    by ocdude (932504) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:58PM (#18534679)
    This really pisses me off. I did all that work and it gets submitted, without prior consent sometimes, to a database for a company to make a profit off of while I get nothing in return? Of course, it all depends on the university as well. For example, I'm doing a year abroad. It shocked me that before coming to this university, we had to basically sign over copyright to the university for anything we created while students here. Essentially, every single project or paper I have turned in for a grade to this university now belongs to them. I raised the issue with the director of the program and she looked at me as if I was some sort of freak because I actually like retaining the rights to any content I create, giving it out as I see fit.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    My homework is finished, it is not yet copyrighted and you haven't returned the nondisclosure form to my attorney. Deduct points and I'll sue ya.

    • by davidwr (791652) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:02PM (#18534785) Homepage Journal
      It was copyrighted the day you fixed it to a tangible medium.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Himring (646324)
      My systematics professor told the story of a student who turned in a term paper one year, and as the professor began flipping pages, there on the page were his photo-copied marks that he made on the original paper the year before.

      IOW, the guy had taken some other guy's paper from a previous year, photo-copied it, and turned it in as his own. I guess he had changed the title page or something, but didn't even take the time to _look_ at the rest of the pages to even see the markings.

      Professor calls the
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by zippthorne (748122)
        Yeah we had this problem at my university, too. No professor wants to be responsible for a student actually being expelled, and for some reason they often assume that the act of plagiarism is limited to solely his own class, so they just fail the student on that assignment or for the class, and it never makes it into the "permanent" record. The school had a grace limit: you wouldn't get expelled on the first (and IIRC, even the second) offense, but that was defeated by all the professors who simply did no
  • Preface: I am not a lawyer, I can't even play one on TV. So.... I would have assumed that when they sign up to use TurnItIn they agree to some sort of legal terms.... perhaps that's not the case?

    If they did, I would assume the appropriate lawsuit would be against the schools that are forcing them to attend (truancy laws) and submit copyrighted works.

    That, in turn, would never work for (American, at least) University students, as from what I know (the few I've attended) they have students sign agreem
  • by davidwr (791652) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:59PM (#18534717) Homepage Journal
    AnyUniversity, USA

    New Student Application

    The undersigned hereby agrees to allow AnyUniversity, henceforth known as "The Univeristy," its employees, officers, and agents, a non-exclusive, perpetual right to store or publish copies of all work submitted for course credit.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by gurps_npc (621217)
      They may have that right, they may not. But I bet you $10 that right is not TRANSFERABLE to other people, and Turnitin is demanding they transfer that right.
  • by sdo1 (213835)

    ...and they formally copyrighted their papers prior to their submission to Turnitin.
    What exactly does that mean? I was under the impression that the mere act of creating the work rendered it "copyrighted".

    -S
    • by georgewilliamherbert (211790) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:03PM (#18534791)
      It ususally means having registered it with the government. The usual terminology is "registered copyright" rather than "formally", but other coverage makes it clear what they did.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by MobyDisk (75490)

        It ususally means having registered it with the government.

        That is not correct. In the United States, as of 1978, you do not have to register something for it to be copyrighted. It is very very very rarely done.

        Excerpt from Copyright office basics: [copyright.gov]

        A work that was created (fixed in tangible form for the first time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a term enduring for the author's life plus an additional 70 years after the author's death.

    • by the_doctor_23 (945852) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:08PM (#18534931)

      ...and they formally copyrighted their papers prior to their submission to Turnitin.
      What exactly does that mean? I was under the impression that the mere act of creating the work rendered it "copyrighted".
      From http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.html#cr [copyright.gov]:
      If registration is made within 3 months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney's fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.
  • by garcia (6573) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:02PM (#18534781) Homepage
    I didn't want that god damn bot spidering me anymore so I went to the URL they offer during the crawl: http://www.turnitin.com/robot/crawlerinfo.html [turnitin.com]

    Right there it tells you how to turn the fucking thing off.

    User-agent: TurnitinBot
    Disallow: /

    One of the McLean High plaintiffs wrote a paper titled "What Lies Beyond the Horizon." It was submitted to Turnitin with instructions that it not be archived, but it was, the lawsuit says.

    So, instead of suing first, I assume that these students sent a certified letter demanding the content be removed from the database? The article doesn't specifically say, but I have a feeling that's not what happened.
  • by ptbarnett (159784) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:06PM (#18534879)
    Students Protest Turnitin.com [slashdot.org]

    This time, it looks like someone purposely set up a test case at the same high school (in McLean, VA), by submitting a paper and specifying that it not be archived -- then found that it was.

    Last time, I wondered if it was appropriate for a public high school to require students to contribute their papers to Turnitin.com's database. You might be able to make a compelling argument that private schools and public/private universities could do so as a condition of admission. But, how do you reconcile truancy laws and forced contributions to a privately owned-and-operated company?

  • Horrible system (Score:5, Informative)

    by geek (5680) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:07PM (#18534905)
    As an English major (I type poorly so excuse typos) I can tell you first hand that Turnitin is horrid. Previous posts have talked about how submitting a draft and then your final shows your final as being plagiarized. But it's worse than that. It hits on common word usage, simple three word statements, hell even cliche statements that may be 2 words long, it marks them.

    To make matters worse a large number of professors are starting to use this and treat it like the gospel. I know several students accused now of plagiarism, falsely, because of this system.

    I am lucky this semester and have 2 professors who realize this and in a move to stop plagiarism have taken other actions, such as asking us to turn in all of our rough drafts and print/copy out our sources and attach it all to our final work, something you can still cheat on but are much less likely too.

    Personally I don't know anyone who has ever cheated on a paper. I suppose with some of the fluff classes and electives some may have because those classes are a low priority, but by and large plagiarism is no where near as big a problem as these people make it out to be. High school maybe, but not in higher education.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by pruss (246395)
      First of all, no professor who knows anything about what they're doing is going to make a plagiarism accusation based on turnitin.com's score. For one, by default, embedded quotations are usually flagged as copied (which of course they are, but it's an acceptable form copying if duly acknowledged). Rather, the professor would, presumably, look at the source of each of the flagged portions, check if the amount copied seems too large to be chance, see whether perhaps there is some innocent mistake, and so o
  • Hmmm.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MarcoAtWork (28889) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:24PM (#18535237)
    Given that many, many teachers give out broadly similar assignments all over the country, how many years it will be until most possible ways of talking, say, of what Dante meant in a certain canto in the Inferno, will be in the database and will make it impossible to write a paper without being suspected of plagiarizing? Especially if the system runs with a very low threshold (say, 3-4 words in a row that are the same = plagiarizing)

    It would really be interesting if all the published books on one particular subject (again, say, the Divine Comedy) were submitted to this service and a check was run about just how much 'plagiarizing' and 'original thinking' there is going around...
    • by geek (5680) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:33PM (#18535393)
      This is already the case. My 17th century British Literature Professor stopped using Turnitin.com because it became obvious, every idea relating to Milton had already been expressed in a million different ways. Just because an idea was original to a student, didn't mean that same idea hadn't been expressed previously by another. He told us every single paper he received had gotten negative hits from Turnitin.com because Milton had just been discussed to death.
  • by heretic108 (454817) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:34PM (#18535405)
    There's an possible way in which Turnitin might avoid the copyright issue.

    They could issue a standalone program, for the use of tutors, which will break the submitted work up into phrase chunks, and store each submitted essay as a sequence of hashed phrases.

    Storing it as a sequence of hashed words might still run foul of copyright, since a dictionary attack would be able to uplift most/all of the plaintext. But if the hashing granularity is phrases, then turnitin could argue that it is computationally infeasible to reconstruct the submitted cleartext, and thus what they're storing is effectively a 'fingerprint' of the work and not the work itself.

    If they wanted to get really smart, they could break up each phrase into words, and by using a thesaurus, reduce each word to an index into a table of synonym sets. This could defeat circumvention attempts whereby plagiarists replace words with synonyms to avoid detection.

  • by Sean0michael (923458) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:42PM (#18535569)
    To me it seems that this lawsuit will come down to whose fine print trumps whose. It was posted above that, according to Turnitin.com's Terms of Use:

    any communications or material of any kind that you e-mail, post, or transmit through the Site (excluding personally identifiable information of students and any papers submitted to the Site), including, questions, comments, suggestions, and other data and information (your "Communications") will be treated as non-confidential and non-proprietary. You grant iParadigms a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, world-wide, irrevocable license to reproduce, transmit, display, disclose, and otherwise use your Communications on the Site or elsewhere for our business purposes. We are free to use any ideas, concepts, techniques, know-how in your Communications for any purpose, including, but not limited to, the development and use of products and services based on the Communications.
    This is made with the purchaser of the software, presumably the school. So anything the school submits to Turnitin, according to this, is treated as non-proprietary. Basically Turnitin says that they can do whatever they like with what you give them.

    At the high school level, a student doesn't sign any contract with the public school system as far as I know regarding the copyright of material (it's high school, what are the odds that it's worth copyrighting?). So the school does not hold the copyright--the students do.

    So if the student is compelled to use Turnitin.com, of if the teacher uses Turnitin.com without the student's knowledge, this could constitute copyright infringement I think. Even if the student (say, at a private university) had signed a contract on admission that all work submitted to the school became the intellectual property of the school, the work would still have the copyright of the student because they received that right before they turned it in.

    So one person's document says that it is proprietary and belongs to the student. The other states it is non-proprietary and belongs to Turnitin.com. So whose fine print wins? I think that, if the student did not freely choose to submit it to Turnitin.com, then the copyright should stay with the student and the students should win.

    (Personally I think Turnitin.com's Terms of Service are horrible and nasty, since they also make the school defend them. You agree to indemnify and defend iParadigms from any claim (including attorneys fees and costs) arising from your (a) use of the Site, (b) violation of any third party right, or (c) breach of any of these Terms and Conditions. I sure wouldn't do that.)
  • Just suppose (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:54PM (#18535751)
    Just suppose I write an original term paper, all my own work, and I intend to sell it to other students who don't want to do that work themselves. Turnitin has no rights to my paper beyond validating that it doesn't match any other one in their database. Furthermore I've legally copyrighted my work, and they've taken it without compensation to me, and destroyed its future value in the process. I think the students definitely have a case.

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