Copyright Infringment by

This Washington Post article describes students protestiing their school’s use of It has been discussed on Slashdot as well. My ENGL 001A English Composition course at Mission College requires me to submit all of my papers to Turnitin, and I am unhappy about it, but I wasn’t aware that there is widespread opposition among students.

I was somewhat startled to see the high rates of plagiarism that are claimed, but upon reflection I suppose I am not actually too surprised. People are always looking for a quick and easy alternative to tasks they don’t want to perform. I have never turned in plagiarized work, and have no desire to do so. In fact, I’ve never really considered plagiarizing until I was forced to use Turnitin. Even absent the use of a service like Turnitin, I would be far too worried that plagiarism would be detected, and that I would fail the course, be expelled, or have a degree revoked. The potential penalty for detected plagiarism is simply far too costly to justify saving a bit of time now.

However, I am very unhappy about having to submit my work via Turnitin, and their storage of my work in a database. Supporters of Turnitin generally claim that their use of student’s works is not copyright infringement, based on arguments that are dubious at best. Here is the response I posted on Slashdot to such claims:

The argument that Turnitin is not infringing is flawed for at least two reasons:

  1. Copyright infringement doesn’t require publication. If you rent a DVD and make a copy of it, you have almost certainly infringed copyright, even though you haven’t “published” the work by making your copy available to any third party. In a copyright infringement lawsuit relating to a work with a registered copyright, publication may result in a larger award of actual damages, but has nothing to do with whether infringement occurred.
  2. As I understand it, Turnitin does republish the work, or at least fragments of it. If someone submits a paper, and Turnitin finds some degree of match with another paper in their database, reportedly Turnitin will supply the matched paper or excerpts from it to the course instructor.

I am currently taking a course that requires me to submit my papers to Turnitin. My objection to Turnitin is that they are not only infringing my copright, but that they are doing so for commercial profit. If they want to make money from storing my paper in a database, they should pay me for a license.I carefully read the Turnitin terms and conditions when I signed up for the account. I was particularly concerned that I might be forced to agree to terms that grant them a license to my work, although arguably if I was forced to enter the agreement in order to take a college course, the agreement might not be legally binding. However, there were no such terms in the agreement. The agreement primarily said that I would not make improper use of Turnitin’s intellectual property, something that I have no interest in doing.

Every paper I submit to Turnitin contains the statement “Copyright 2006 Eric Smith. All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be stored in a database or electronic retrieval system without explicit written permission of the author.”

After the course is over, and I have received my degree from the college (expected in December), I plan to send a registered letter to Turnitin demanding that they delete my papers from the database and provide some evidence that they have done so. I expect to either get no response, or a response stating that they will not comply. At that point I’ll consider legal action.

Another claim of Turnitin’s non-infringement is that their storage of student’s papers in their database is covered as Fair Use. This argument fails also, as pointed out by various other Slashdot commentators, including jackbird:

It fails two of the four pillars of fair use on its face – Commercial use (yes) and Substantiality (all of it).

Stanford University offers a great resource on Copyright and Fair Use, including a detailed description of the Four Factors (pillars).

Other commentators point out that a service like that of Turnitin is necessary because of the immensity of the plagiarism problem. That argument makes no sense. The fact that there is a problem with unauthorized copying of student papers does not justify the existence of a commercial enterprise whose business model consists of unauthorized (and unlawful) copying of student papers.

Some Universities are subscribing to plagiarism detection services despite serious misgivings by their own faculty.  Several faculty members of Grand Valley State University wrote a paper “Issues Raised by Use of TurnItIn Plagiarism Detection Software” describing their concerns.  They point out that a student at McGill University actually succeeded in a legal challenge to the requirement that his papers had to be submitted via Turnitin.

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4 Responses to Copyright Infringment by

  1. Dan says:

    I just came across an absolutely eye-opening article with tons of proof. I had no idea how much Turnitin violates students’ rights.

    The Well-Known Secret about

  2. TheBigTyme says:

    You have a great argument assuming you did not agree to Turnitin’s click through agreement that grants them a license to your works for their purposes. Did you forget that minor detail?

  3. Eric says:

    At the time I wrote this, there wasn’t any click-through, so I didn’t grant them any rights.

    Also, any such click-through agreement is probably invalid, since it is entered under duress by the student. The instructors or institutions threaten the student with a failing grade if he or she does not submit the work to

  4. Pingback: More Plagiarism Stories, and “The Cheating Culture” | ISTP Dad

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