Combating Plagiarism in a Technological World

With the proliferation of technology, students have easier access and ability to plagiarize other work in their school reports.  Many districts have turned to outside services to screen student-written compositions for plagiarism.  The most commonly-used service is www.turnitin.com, a website operated by iParadigms, LLC which functions as follows: 

  1. School policy requires the high school or college students to submit their written papers over the internet to www.turnitin.com;
  2.  the site attempts to match the text of the student paper against archived documents to see whether there is any cause to suspect plagiarism;
  3.  if any similarities are found between work submitted by a student and archived work, turnitin.com sends a message and a report back to the school district or university the student attends so that an administrator can compare the student work with the similar archived work; and
  4.  the website archives a copy of all submitted student work for comparison with future submissions to the website. 

Not unexpectedly, a group of high school students filed suite in A.V. et al. v. iParadigms, LLC, on the basis that the involuntary archiving of their compositions violated their copyright rights.  The District Court held that the students’ copyright rights were not violated based upon the following analysis: 

  1. There are over 7,000 educational institutions worldwide using turnitin.com’s service and over 100,000 works are submitted every day to the website as an indication of the potential for plagiarism;
  2. While the students argued that their schools’ policies amounted to third-party coercion forcing them to agree to turnitin.com’s terms of use, “[s]chools have a right to decide how to monitor and address plagiarism in their schools and may employ companies like iParadigms to help do so”;
  3. The doctrine of “fair use,” a concept holding that certain kinds of uses or appropriations of otherwise copyrighted work are protected, applied;
  4. the website was not using the student compositions as compositions, but was instead transforming them into a database for anti-plagiarism purposes;
  5. the site does not discourage students in producing creative work;
  6. continued use of a service like turnitin.com would not have a negative effect on any potential use of the student work or upon any future market for the student work;
  7. the compositions which are archived on turnitin.com are not publicly accessible or disseminated in any fashion;
  8. rather than harming the rights of students and their work, the service has a protective effect in that it discourages and may prevent others from plagiarizing original student work; and
  9. any policy objections the students had to the turnitin.com service should be directed to their own school districts or legislators, and not to the service itself, which is not violating protected copyright in any fashion. 

The District Court’s decision is on appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.  While the litigation is not yet concluded, at least one Court has recognized the value and legitimacy of using services such as turnitin.com and has rejected arguments that the service infringes copyright.  If the District Court is affirmed and its rationale recognized in other federal circuits, school districts will continue to have this valuable tool at their disposal.