Students Sue Turnitin Anti-Plagiarism Service For Copyright Infringement

A civil suit seeks $900,000 in damages for six copyright registrations the students obtained for papers that parent company iParadigms archived.

K.C. Jones, Contributor

April 3, 2007

4 Min Read

Four students have turned the tables on a plagiarism detection company by suing for copyright infringement.

Two students from Virginia's McClean High School and two from Desert Vista High School in Arizona filed a civil suit against iParadigms in U.S. District Court on March 19. The complaint, filed in the Eastern District of Virginia, claims that the company's Web-based anti-cheating system, Turnitin, illegally archives students' work without their permission.

The complaint states that iParadigms contracts with the school districts to check students papers and then archives them without payment to, or consent from, the authors. It explains that students at McClean are required to agree to iParadigms' terms or take a "zero" for their assignments, or attend another school. The Arizona students face similar choices.

The students also claim that the anti-plagiarism system violates educational privacy laws by retaining personal information about them. They are seeking a jury trial, injunctive relief, and an award totaling $900,000 in damages for six copyright registrations the students obtained for papers that iParadigms archived. That is the maximum allowed under copyright infringement laws. The students are not named because they are minors.

James Rittinger, iParadigms' attorney, said the claims are "not supported by the facts and the law. We believe that everything Turnitin does is legal and appropriate, and we're going to defend the case vigorously."

The outcome of the lawsuit could have wide-ranging implications since iParadigms claims to archive 100,000 papers from thousands of institutions a day.

"The Turnitin system is capable of detecting only the most ignorant or lazy attempts at plagiarism by students without significant monetary resources, and is ineffective if a plagiarist does anything aside from virtually exactly copying another's work, or obtains his or her paper from a pay Web site," the complaint states. "As such, the Turnitin system serves no public interest whatsoever. Despite these staggering limitations, the Turnitin system is -- on information and belief -- used by hundreds of institutional clients in more than 70 countries."

Rittinger said the system works very well. "The best evidence of that is who uses it," he said. "In other words, you don't have to take our word for it. Take the word of the 7,000 institutions that use it, instead of the words in one lawyer's complaint. Obviously, the people who use it believe it works."

The plaintiffs' attorney Robert A. Vanderhye said during an interview Tuesday that dozens of people have contacted him since newspapers published stories about the lawsuit. The retired intellectual property lawyer is representing the four students pro bono and said he does not foresee adding more plaintiffs because of procedural difficulties.

iParadigms' Web site states that archiving is probably the most legally sensitive aspect of the service. It states that if a student agrees to archiving, there is no issue. "Otherwise, the archival raises the issue of whether the conversion of a work to electronic form, and maintenance of it in a database, constitutes a 'fair use' of the work."

The company argues that nonprofit educational uses are fair, under most circumstances, but the Turnitin system is commercial. The company explains that the use is fair because the work is archived only to create a digital fingerprint, which does not impair marketability, and that the work is not copied, displayed, or published in its entirety.

"The minimal use of a student's work to ferret out plagiarism in others' works, without making the work itself available to the public, is a fair use that does not infringe any copyright which may be present in the archived work," iParadigms' legal argument states.

The students' complaint contradicts iParadigms' claims. It states that the company may send complete manuscripts to clients upon request, without the students' permission, and the company puts its own copyright notice on them.

Rittinger said the company does not send the students' complete manuscripts out. He said iParadigms claims rights to it own system, but it does not claim rights to the students' work.

The lawsuit argues that the students requested that their papers not be archived, and the company ignored their requests. It also states they will not have control over the archived works in the future unless the court intervenes.

"I feel that these students have been badly wronged," Vanderhye said during an interview. "They have been abused by a corporation solely for profit and I want to rectify that situation."

In the legal documents, he called iParadigms' infringement the "quintessence of hypocrisy, essentially stealing students' unpublished manuscripts," while alleging they are protecting against intellectual theft.

"I find that quite ironic," he added.

Editor's note: This story was expanded at 4:55 p.m. to add a response from iParadigms' attorney.

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