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Students Sue Anti-Plagiarism Service 713

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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  • 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 lakeland ( 218447 ) <> 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.
  • Re:I predict (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rainman_bc ( 735332 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:00PM (#18534753)
    . It kind of sucks that trust gets tossed out the window so quickly though.

    I know people who've made most of their way through their undergrad plagiarizing papers. Not only does that mean my work is all for not, it also sets the bar higher when a prof has read 20 or 30 plagiarized papers. Not that my work's been terrible, but some of those papers are really great, and it makes it harder for me to get a good grade.
  • by garcia ( 6573 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:02PM (#18534781)
    I didn't want that god damn bot spidering me anymore so I went to the URL they offer during the crawl: []

    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 Himring ( 646324 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:03PM (#18534803) Homepage Journal
    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 guy in and says, "do you need to tell me anything about this paper?" And the kid is like, "I really enjoyed doing it." Professor is like, "anything else?" The kid catches on and says, "are you gonna give me an f on the paper?" The professor is like, "you're going to flunk the class and luck for you I'm not going to get you expelled from the school...."

  • This is very clever (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Qwerpafw ( 315600 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:06PM (#18534871) Homepage
    I hope they win. All too often copyright is being used as the tool of large corporations against the little man. It's time the individual fought back against the big companies. plays on the rampant fears of plagiarism to sell a service students really don't have any choice of using. The teacher submits the papers, and the students have no control over their copyrighted material. You essay, your intellectual property, disappears into the black hole of and never comes out.
  • by pimpin apollo ( 664314 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:06PM (#18534877)
    For the ensuing discussion, let's get some legal concepts down first. If the case ever gets to the merits, will come down to the issue of licenses and fair use.

    Some points then:
    * There is no "formally copyrighted" process. There is registration. Registration helps with damages, proof, and some other things, but it is not necessary. Fixing a creative work in a tangible form is about all that's needed for a copyright.

    * The students, writing for a school, are not employees and they were not making works for hire. They are not employees. Even if they are independent contractors, there is nothing in writing.

    * The students, going to a school, necessarily permit some uses of their copyrighted work. This is particularly clear if it was known that this sort of copying was going on in the first place.

    * This case might involve fair use. I know what the company is doing feels a little slimy, but for those of us that care about free culture/constitution/whatever you want to call it, we ought to advocate for a version of fair use that is expansive enough to cover this activity. If Google should be able to copy books so that we can search them (as google should), then this company should be able to do something similar with term papers. Remember, these rules apply to everyone, not just the companies we feel good about.

    Alright, now have at it.
  • by ptbarnett ( 159784 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:06PM (#18534879)
    Students Protest []

    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'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?

  • Re:I predict (Score:3, Interesting)

    by CRCulver ( 715279 ) <> on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:07PM (#18534911) Homepage

    Not that my work's been terrible, but some of those papers are really great, and it makes it harder for me to get a good grade.

    Grade inflation in American universities is insane. Any cause to grade more strictly would only help even it out.

  • Re:I predict (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:09PM (#18534967)
    More like the students will be required to sign an agreement granting the instructor a non-exclusive license to the instructor and to use the works to catch plagiarism. No signature = no credit.

    It's ridiculous that this is necessary. Course syllabi are already like five pages long to account for whatever legalistic maneuvers a previous student used to avoid a course requirement.

    And as an editorial comment (I am a university instructor) -- SCREW these students. It is already too easy to plagiarize and too difficult to make charges stick, to the extent that many instructors decline to punishing suspected plagiarism -- it's a huge waste of their valuable time. These students are cheapening the value of their own degrees by making plagiarism even more rampant than it already is.
  • Re:I predict (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geek ( 5680 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:13PM (#18535025)
    If you knew they were cheating why didn't you turn them in? Most school have an honor code and if it bothered you so much you should have talked to the professors. Personally I don't know anyone that cheats on papers, I'm an English major and that's pretty much all we do in my classes. If people were cheating I'd have encountered it at least once by now, and I haven't.
  • 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, 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:I predict (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geek ( 5680 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:26PM (#18535267)
    Between my 5 English courses this semester I've written 16 papers in 10 weeks. Thats a little lower than last semester and my experience isn't unique. If you think English majors aren't tempted to cheat with a load like that you're kidding yourself, and by sheer odds, even if they were less likely too, the increased volume of work would still bring some out of the wood work. Fact of the matter is, far fewer people cheat than these people claim. Which still doesn't address my point to the OP, if the OP knew there was cheating, why wasn't the professor informed?
  • by Zenaku ( 821866 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:28PM (#18535301)
    Did you even read what you quoted?

    "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."
  • by geek ( 5680 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:33PM (#18535393)
    This is already the case. My 17th century British Literature Professor stopped using 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 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.

  • Re:Uh... no. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @05:39PM (#18535523)
    When I was at university, a fellow student was almost expelled for plaigarism, after turning in a copy of his own homework. Here's the deal:

    This was the second time he had taken the class, and he still had all his coursework from the prior semester. Instead of redoing one particular assignment, he simply turned in what he had done for the same assignment the prior semester (for which he had scored well). The professor gave him a failing grade and reported him for plaigarism.

    His argument: He had done the work himself, he should be able to turn it in.

    The school's argument: Per the contract, all work submitted by students becomes the intellectual property of the university. Upon first submission, the intellectual property rights were transferred to the university. Upon second submission, the work was now in violation of plaigarism rules, as it consisted entirely of intellectual property belonging to the university.

    In the end, the schoolboard decided on leniency, and allowed him a short period to repeat the assignment, but made it well-known that this would not be tolerated in the future.
  • 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'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, of if the teacher uses 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 So whose fine print wins? I think that, if the student did not freely choose to submit it to, then the copyright should stay with the student and the students should win.

    (Personally I think'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.)
  • Re:Terms of Service (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Kadin2048 ( 468275 ) <> 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.
  • 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.
  • Re:Uh... no. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rucs_hack ( 784150 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:03PM (#18535853)
    Two papers I wrote as a phd student are now behind pay for access portals, where they charge $30 for a single copy, or a subscription.

    Do I get a penny of this? Nope, and do I get free access as the Author? Nope.

    Did they ask for my permission? Nope.

    Its the standard way papers are distributed in the academic world. I think it's unfair as it stands, although I recognise they have some need to recoup their storage/indexing costs.

    Incidentally, I started my phd with the explicit requirement that all software instantiations of my research that I created were to be released under the GPL, and that no-one else had control over my findings. I had an understanding supervisor, and the prerequisites were accepted.

  • Re:I predict (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TheGreatHegemon ( 956058 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:23PM (#18536167)
    I once got into a discussion about Turnitin with a good college professor of mine. The specific program she was teaching required use of Turnitin - but she didn't use it. She told the entire class, directly, that Turnitin isn't how they find cheaters - it's by reading the students paper and _seeing_ obvious changes in style/diction. Some students still do "cut & paste" plagiarism, though it's a lot rarer now. "Cut, reword, & paste" plagiarism is still not noticed by Turnitin. People must always remember that "cut & paste" plagiarism is only *one* form of plagiarism. Technically, it's illegal to take a fact without citing it. Turnitin fails here as well. Most importantly, however, are that you can have false positives, or just plain database glitches. There was one fellow who was brought in because Turnitin red flagged his paper. Thankfully, he realized it wasn't even his paper - there had been a database glitch. A less observant student & less comprehending staff could have *ruined* that student. These students aren't suing out of want for money (well, they might be for a bit), it's because the system shouldn't be required and, frankly, can cause harm. No system of courts, be it in school or in life, should find even one innocent guilty - even if it means a hundred guilty go free (I should cite this, but I fail to recall who said it).
  • Re:Terms of Service (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Firehed ( 942385 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:28PM (#18536257) Homepage
    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:Uh... no. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:37PM (#18536401)
    Lucky you. In a rather dull undergrad level archaeology course, I was required to submit a term project which basically needed to be a method/program/etc. for a "novel" invention/improvement for archaeologists.

    The professor passed out papers to be submitted with the final work which assigned rights to the University. I refused to sign. I made what I thought was an intelligent and calm case for my point -- immediately shot down, and received an automatic F (even though I submitted the work, and suspecting there to be a problem did so at the faculty office where I received signed proof it was submitted on time).

    While most ideas were probably stupid in the great scheme of things, this was obviously a fishing expedition by the professor to hope to get a great idea.

    Later, another professor wanted to use my idea from the paper. Lacking automatic license, we discussed it, discussed the other professor's actions, etc. The end result was the legal team for the school voiding all that professor's agreements under fear of liability for unjust enrichment and other abuse of power type of laws -- and his tenure was revoked. And, ta dah -- the Chair of the department adjusted my grade.

    But, I did happily sign a LIMITED license for the University to use my program free-of-charge on that specific project --- when I was asked, explained what it was to be used for, and treated with the respect that just because I was an undergrad doesn't mean they have everything and I have nothing.

    That being said -- clearly it's not automatic that the school gets rights to the work, nor can you be forced to assign rights unless the school exchanged something for them (or it was a condition of admission, etc.). But, obviously there needs to be SOME wiggle room to allow academic growth (should I be able to sue because my professor gave my paper to someone else because he thought it was either really good or really bad and it wasn't implied he would be sharing them?)

    It all comes down to respect and asking permission, if you ask me. Given the option of 1- using Turnitin and getting a grade quicker and not having to submit rough drafts, research, etc. -- or 2- Submitting 2 rough drafts and documentation of research with your paper --- most students would probably use Turnitin. But they've been given a fair choice in my example, and if they disagree with Turnitin's policies they are free to not use it.
  • by tksh ( 816129 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @06:39PM (#18536439)

    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.

    When I was in university, we had to sign an agreement that whatever we submit to them can be used without my permission, for distribution, for profit, etc. Anything I produce using university resources also fell under this 'agreement' except for maybe one or two special cases. I'm under the impression that this is pretty standard across universities now.

    But actually, for courses where we had to use TurnItIn, we had to sign a release. IIRC, it was to the effect that I gave up my copyright and they become the owner of my work. We did have the option to not submit through TurnItIn provided that we talked with the professor and explain our concerns. My sister who's in high school now is not as fortunate. She has to sign the release or no credit will be given. No alternatives at all. Any objection is met with the "if you have nothing to hide..." argument and laughs if you talk about copyright and ownership.

    This is Canada too, not the US.

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

    by rahvin112 ( 446269 ) on Thursday March 29, 2007 @07:25PM (#18537023)
    Kinda, the contract exists at the sole discretion of the minor. The minor can void the contract at his will for any reason, for this reason it's usually called a void contract. But this doesn't go the other way, if the Minor wishes to enforce the conract they can.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 29, 2007 @10:49PM (#18538725)
    The reality is there is more people born in worse circumstances, who have continued in those worse circumstances, than there are that actually managed to get out. It's actually even worse if your a caucasian male specifically, since we are unable to participate in things like, equal opportunity employment standards (Secret of My Success anyone?), many many scholarships (even illegal immigrants can get a free college education), and we can't claim the race card, just to name a few.
    The system is skewed to keep the lower and middle class inline. Like paying that AMT if you and/or your spouse manage to hit middle class status? Like have a dubious credit rating system? Like enormous insurance cost for subpar treatment (they actually deducted $64,000 from my father's hospital bill when he needed surgery simply because he HAD insurance, tell me that's not a scam)? Etc Etc. So just keep your head in the sand, you'll be fine.
    Like myself for instance, I'm working my ass off, literally, two jobs and college, I've applied for multiple scholarships time and time again, never got a one. Now that I've got my associates, simply because that is all I can afford out of pocket at this time; if they think as an Alumni I'll ever donate scholarship money, they are out of their minds.

    LOL, I always get such odd words in my little anti-bot box, this one was "inferior"
  • by julesh ( 229690 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @03:43AM (#18540447)
    But under U.S. law you can't claim statutory damages for copyright infringement unless you had previously registered the work that is being infringed.

    Previously to issuing the suit. You have (IIRC) 6 months from date of first publication (which date has arguably not even occurred in this case) to register before you lose the right to the additional damages. Unless that deadline has expired, you do not have to register prior to the infringment taking place.
  • Bzzzt! Wrong answer! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by anomaly ( 15035 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <3repooc.mot>> on Friday March 30, 2007 @08:12AM (#18541633)
    I'm a hiring manager in a Fortune 500 company.

    Yes, we expect a degree, unless you're so incredibly smart that you can produce without one. (And almost all of you who think that you are that smart are simply wrong. Formal education tends to give you the foundation on which all technology is built, and it's rare to find someone who 'gets it' without going to college.)

    No, we DO NOT CARE where you went to school, as long as it's accredited. What we care about is:
    a) Can you do the technical work we need done?

    b) Can you communicate clearly? (Orally and in writing.)

    c) Are you decently groomed? (So that others are not made uncomfortable by your appearance.)

    d) Do you know when to SHUT UP? (Being right about a technical issue is nice, but just because you are right you don't have the freedom to tell people they are idiots.)

    e) Can you see the big picture? (Sometimes there is considerable business value in building something other than the "perfect" solution, and we want to be able to pay you to build something technically "lame" because it's the best way for us to make more money.)

    f) Are you a leader in your chosen field? Are you willing to learn leadership in a broader sense?

    We can always hire someone who knows how to flip bits. We are looking for people who can flip bits and be tolerable to be around. There are plenty of technically competent jerks who think they know it all. We'll let others have them, and we'll hire the people who are smart in more than one area.

    The key is turning brainpower into systems and applications that make the company cheaper to run or facilitate making more money. That's what we care about. We don't care where your parchment came from.

Happiness is twin floppies.