Thursday, April 12, 2007

Students Sue to Defend

Your constitutional right to plagiarism. Apparently, turnitin.com stands in the way of their inalienable right to copy poorly written papers for 9th grade English already cribbed once from Cliff Notes.

And, of course, they want $900,000 or more in damages. These must have been really, really good essays – I can’t imagine that a high school student’s book report on “The Scarlet Letter” is going to form the basis of a Quentin Tarantino blockbuster.

There actually is an interesting angle to this story. Turnitin accumulates the submitted papers in a database. It then compares incoming papers with the papers in the database, and applies an algorithm to check for plagiarism. It then provides reports back to the school. It’s revenue is generated from charging the schools for use of it’s services.

Boiled down to essentials, Turnitin is taking the students work, aggregating it, and charging money to run comparisons. So the student’s work is being used to generate income for a third party. But not any particular student’s work – the system depends on the using the bulk of work to provide the research.

This may well constitute fair use. Furthermore, it may also be held that the educational benefits of preventing plagiarism outweigh the negligible harm to the student (who, after all, would retain rights to their work, and could publish or submit their work for paid publication). Or, that the use of Turnitin prevents the unauthorized use of one student’s work by another. After all, having another student pass your work off as their own seems to be a copyright infringement.

At the end of the day, another story of spoiled kids and clueless parents, working together with some lawyers to enable cheaters.