Saturday, March 31, 2007

TurnItIn Being Sued

How do you feel about this? If you haven't heard, TurnItIn is being sued by students for violating copyright on the students' work. TurnItIn is a service many schools pay for to root out plagiarism. One way it does this is to store every paper submitted in a huge database so that it can be compared against future papers. The English department at my school uses it and swears by it.

Most (probably all) teachers have had to deal with plagiarism at some point and TurnItIn offers a great way to not only catch the would be cheaters, but to also discourage cheating. I'm all for it. The students in question argue that they never gave TurnItIn the right to save and use their papers. In fact they specifically requested that their papers not be stored and registered copyrights for their papers.

It's kind of funny reading what people around the net have to say about this and how little most people truly know about copyright law. A lawyer once told me that no money has to change hands nor does there have to be a public exhibition of a work in order to violate copyright. He also told me that a large part of the outcome of any copyright case has less to do with the poorly worded and vague copyright law and more to do with the judge who presides over the case.

Fair Use is at the center of the case. On one side we have work that is not being distributed and no derivative works are being composed from it and on the other we have the work being used in a way that goes against the express wishes of the creator. In fact the purpose it is being put to is a revenue generating service and the creator has never been paid a cent. Control of how the work is being use has been taken away from the work's creator.

I have been a supporter of the whole idea behind TurnItIn for a long time. That said, the argument made by the students in this case is very strong. We encourage our students to respect the works of others and by making them use TurnItIn we may be saying their work doesn't deserve the same respect. If we are really trying to prepare students for the read, write, web this might not be the right message we could be sending.

As I understand it, this story first appeared in the Washington Post. After you read the story I would greatly appreciate your comments. As a teacher this is something I've been struggling with for a couple of days.


Ben said...

Wow, an interesting development. I've never had a chance to use TurnItIn, so I've never given it a thought as to violating copyright law or not. I would be with you, in that it doesn't really seem to matter, but that argument from the students is a good one; money is being made from their work. I wonder if there aren't any open-source solutions that might negate the use of these materials for commercial purposes.

Anonymous said...

As a student I do not particularly enjoy Turnitin as there was an instance where someone in California had written a paper very similar to mine and mine came back at some 30%. Ever since then I had an antipathy for them. Plus, I already found a loophole, there are two major sources of information Turnitin does not check.