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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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  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Re:Uh... no. (Score:4, Informative)

    by fotbr (855184) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @04:58PM (#18534701) Journal
    Not like that at any school I've been to.

    Now, around here it IS fairly common for clauses specifying ownership of IP to be present for faculty and research staff, but not for students.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Going nowhere fast? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Old Man Kensey (5209) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:04PM (#18534815) Homepage

    Here's the relevant section of the Turnitin usage terms:

    "Your License to Us: Unless otherwise indicated in this Site, including our Privacy Policy or in connection with one of our services, 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. [bold & italic emphasis mine]

    The bold part is what will kill the suit (assuming it predates the filing of the suit), but the italic part is pretty scary too: if your submission is something involving an invention, you just granted Turnitin an unlimited license to use your idea for any purpose.

  • Horrible system (Score:5, Informative)

    by geek (5680) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:07PM (#18534905) Homepage
    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.
  • by 'nother poster (700681) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:07PM (#18534907)
    But, it IS copyrighted. It is copyrighed as you create it. The registration only raises the limits on damages.
  • Re:Uh... no. (Score:3, Informative)

    by TheRaven64 (641858) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:07PM (#18534913) Journal
    This is a dupe, and it was discussed in some length when it first appeared. For what it's worth, my university (in the UK) had a clause stating that the copyright on all submitted coursework was owned by the university. Your might have too; quite a few of my contemporaries didn't notice its existence.
  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:10PM (#18534977)
    In the USA, it means sending a copy to the Library of Congress [copyright.gov]
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:11PM (#18534993)
    Huh? The bold part is irrelevant to the lawsuit. The students are protesting the use of their papers not random communication with iParadigms. As such, the terms of service seem to clearly exclude student papers from the all-encompassing rights grab of the rest of the paragraph.
  • Re:Uh... no. (Score:3, Informative)

    by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:22PM (#18535191) Homepage Journal

    I signed no contract in primary or secondary school that said my work is the property of the school, and copyright law has no provision that makes such a theory true.

    You cannot even be party to a contract until you achieve majority.

  • Wrong (Score:4, Informative)

    by ari_j (90255) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:25PM (#18535257)
    The problem with that is that the students aren't submitting anything to Turnitin - they aren't the "you" in the Turnitin usage terms and they are not party to those terms. The school and teachers are doing that. The students probably didn't give the school or teachers a license to do that, I'm guessing.

    As to the bit in the story blurb about them formally copyrighting their papers prior to submission to Turnitin, that isn't at all clear to me from scanning the article. What is much more probable is that the students formally registered their copyrights prior to filing the lawsuit, which is a requirement for suing on a copyright in the U.S. (Your work is automatically protected by copyright law, even without a copyright notice these days, but in order to sue for infringement you have to register your copyright.)
  • by MontyApollo (849862) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:26PM (#18535277)
    Kind of how Google uses everbody else's work (web pages) and makes a good deal of profit.
  • Re:Say what?! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Kalriath (849904) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:30PM (#18535347)
    But Google Book Search allows publishers to contact them to opt out. This service does not. Correlation failed.
  • 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.)
  • 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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:33PM (#18536329)
    Turnitin supporters, read this article:

    http://www.essayfraud.org/turnitin_john_barrie.htm l [essayfraud.org]

    If you can STILL support Turnitin after reading the facts, you probably need psychological intervention.
  • 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 MobyDisk (75490) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:48PM (#18536577) Homepage

    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.
  • Re:Horrible system (Score:3, Informative)

    by pruss (246395) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @07:05PM (#18536779) Homepage
    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 on. And if the student is revising a draft that was earlier submitted for the same course, after looking at the source--which is hyperlinked in the report--the professor should see that it is a draft by the same author. When I use turnitin.com and get a suspected plagiarist, I write a long report to our Honor Council, carefully detailing the evidence for and against innocence, considering alternate hypotheses (e.g., if the student's text matches text by some professional scholar, I check the dates to make sure that there is no possibility that the scholar plagiarized from the student), etc. Typically, I'll also have met with the student by this point (and in every case where I've met with the student, the student admitted the wrongdoing as soon as he or she saw the turnitin.com report).

    Of course, like every tool, turnitin.com can be used incorrectly. But likewise mistakes can be made without turnitin.com. It happens sometimes that a student gets accused of plagiarism because the paper looks too good. For instance, if the student was slacking on earlier papers--or just less good at that part of the course--and then hands in a really good paper, the professor is likely to be quite suspicious. If the professor relies more on turnitin.com, then there may be fewer accusations based simply on the paper looking too good. (The downside of that is that some plagiarized papers well get through.)

    As for frequency, I catch about one plagiarist per one hundred students. I suspect there are probably one or two there that I don't catch.
  • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @07:16PM (#18536901)

    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 typically see the IP statement.

  • by bhsx (458600) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @07:19PM (#18536957)
    If you can't be bothered to read the article, at least read the summary.

    they're A-students, never been accused of plagiarism, and they formally copyrighted their papers prior to their submission to Turnitin.
    So they apparently did "register their papers."
  • Re:Terms of Service (Score:3, Informative)

    by YoJ (20860) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @07:38PM (#18537149) Journal
    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 school, you can't choose whether to attend or compare policies between schools. In this case it is the government stealing intellectual property of its citizens. I applaud the kids for standing up to it.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @07:52PM (#18537283)
    Turnitin supporters, read this article:

    http://www.essayfraud.org/turnitin_john_barrie.htm l [essayfraud.org]

    If you can STILL support Turnitin after reading the facts, you probably need psychological intervention.
  • Re:First Post (Score:2, Informative)

    by BootNinja (743040) <mack.mcneely@gma ... om minus painter> on Thursday March 29, 2007 @08:02PM (#18537401) Homepage
    actually, the joke was probably referencing the fact that there are some schools out there who claim ownership of any work you do for the program. For example, some architectural schools require you to abdicate ownership of any architectural plans you create on assignment. I could see this being the case in some english or Computer science or many different disciplines in Engineering as well, although I have only ever seen it in architecture. So the OP was indeed based in fact and I laughed at the joke.
  • Re:First Post (Score:2, Informative)

    by NeilTheStupidHead (963719) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @08:11PM (#18537487) Journal
    Most colleges and universitiesdo claim that any work you submit becomes the intellectual property of the university. I don't know how well it would hold up in court, but it would likely be a horrific mess.
  • by xigxag (167441) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @08:32PM (#18537679)
    But follow your own link [copyright.gov]. You DO have to register your copyright to sue, and in order to receive statutory (as opposed to compensatory) damages, the registration must be within three months of publication, or prior to the infringement of the work.
  • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @08:37PM (#18537703) Homepage
    Since you seem to be honestly interest, I've looked up the reports of studies which appear in "Academic Dishonest: An Educator's Guide" by Whitley and Keith-Spiegel.

    McCabe and Trevino (1993) apparently listed twelve cheating behaviors. The only behavior I'd call less than obviously cheat is that "copying a few sentences of material from a published source and not footnoting them." The rest are all things like copying an exam, plagiarism, getting access to an exam before it's administered, etc.

    Oh, and the study ONLY covers college careers. No high school or below is included in the questions.

    They find that overall, 78% of students reported at least one incident of one of those behaviors in college. (At honor-code schools it was 58% and at non-honor code schools it was 82%.) Cheating on exams is 52% overall, 31% at honor-code schools and 60% elsewhere. Copied homework assignments (which I'd personally lump in WITH plagiarism) are 42%, 25%, and 50% respectively. Plagiarism is 48%, 31%, and 57%.

    There are other studies cited in the first chapter of the above-mentioned book if anyone is curious. The McCabe and Trevino study just seems to be the best-performed and the most reported in the book.
  • Re:Uh... no. (Score:3, Informative)

    by RedWizzard (192002) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @09:52PM (#18538277)

    Actually, just a minor correction - you have the concept right, but you misstated it. So you're above statement would be:

    Further, even if turning in his own work was technically plagiarism, it would not be copyright infringement
    No, it was right as originally written. The university claimed to own the copyright to the work, but they did not author it. Thus, the original author may have been infringing the copyright by resubmitting it, but he could not have been guilty of plagiarism as it is impossible to plagiarise your own work by definition.
  • by Moridin42 (219670) on Friday March 30, 2007 @02:29AM (#18540133)
    Actually, no. The government in the US can not take without compensation under the umbrella of eminent domain. They must compensate for what they take. Its a Fifth Amendment protection. The recent Supreme Court ruling was merely that "public use" could be "this corporation is going to generate revenues, which we can tax, and thus provide services to the public".

    Of course, given that sort of SCOTUS ruling, receiving a grade may be considered just compensation. I'd call that sort of thing extortion myself, but hey I'm just a student. What do I know.

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