The proliferation of technology has created more ways for students to plagiarize work and many districts have turned to outside services to screen student-written compositions. www.turnitin.com is a website operated by iParadigms, LLC to which high school or college students submit their written papers over the internet. The site then attempts to match the student text against archived documents to see whether there is cause to suspect plagiarism. If similarities are found between student work and archived work, turnitin.com sends a report to the school the student attends so that an administrator can compare the student work with the similar archived work. The website also archives any submitted student work for comparison with future submissions to the website.
A recent decision of the Eastern District of Virginia U.S. District Court addresses the legal rights at issue when districts employ such a service. In A.V. et al. v. iParadigms, LLC, the Court addressed a lawsuit brought by high school students who were mandated to submit their compositions to turnitin.com or they would receive no grade for the assignment under their school policy. They objected on the basis that the involuntary archiving of their compositions violated copyright. The District Court ruled in favor of the company that operates turnitin.com and specifically found that the service does not infringe any student copyright.
The Court noted 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 prevalence of plagiarism. The Court found that “[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.” The Court further found that any use made of students’ work was protected “fair use,” a concept holding that certain kinds of uses or appropriations of otherwise copyrighted work are protected. In determining that turnitin.com made fair use of the students’ work, the Court found that the website was not using the student compositions as compositions, but was instead transforming them into a database for anti-plagiarism purposes. The Court found that the site does not discourage students in producing creative work, and that 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. The Court noted that the compositions which are archived on turnitin.com are not publicly accessible or disseminated in any fashion, and rather than harming the rights of students and their work, the services have a protective effect in that they discourage and may prevent others from plagiarizing original student work. The Court opined that 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 students have appealed the decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. We will update the status of this litigation through a subsequent edition of School Law News. If you wish to review the full opinion issued by the Court in this matter, please go to www.mbm-law.net and follow the link to a PDF file containing the opinion.
In summary, 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 elsewhere, school districts will continue to have this valuable tool at their disposal.