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August 3, 2009, 02:00 PM ET

Students Reach Settlement in Turnitin Suit

A two-year battle over copyright infringement between four students and Turnitin, a commerical plagiarism-detection service, came to an apparent end last Friday in a settlement that prohibits either party from taking further legal action.

The high-school students first sued iParadigms, Turnitin's parent company, in 2007 for copyright infringement, saying the company took their papers against their will and then made a profit from them.The students' high schools required them to use the service, which scans papers for plagiarism and then adds them to its database, which students argued could easily be hacked.

But the students and their lawyers were handed two decisions against them -- first from the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., in March 2008 and again this April from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The Chronicle reported in March 2008 that the district-court judge said Turnitin's actions fell under fair use, ruling that the company “makes no use of any work’s particular expressive or creative content beyond the limited use of comparison with other works." He also said the new use “provides a substantial public benefit.”

The April opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the lower court's decision, and sent back to the lower court a complaint by iPardigm under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that stated that one of the students had gained unauthorized access to Turnitin.

Friday's settlement puts an end to that complaint as well as any further legal action by the students -- including an anticipated Supreme Court appeal. But a blog post on Anon-a-blog suggests that one of the lawyers for the students, Robert A. Vanderhye, could take up the issue with a different group of students.

"Now the search goes out for any student who has a paper that's being held by TurnItIn that they did not upload themselves," the post said.


1. cpparis - August 04, 2009 at 08:00 am

"Now the search goes out for any student who has a paper that's being held by TurnItIn that they did not upload themselves," the post said. Isn't this the case when faculty submit student papers to such programs? I have long been concerned about this type of practice as there is sometimes personal items in student papers that are not appropriate to "share"

2. chriskox - August 04, 2009 at 11:34 am

Faculty should teach what plagiarism is, why we care about it and what it means for academic work and advancement in society. Students should be trusted to do their honest best. Companies like Turn-it-in should dry up and fly away.

3. jonthaler - August 04, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Chriskox says, "Students should be trusted to do their honest best." Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world; we *do* need locks on our doors, and students *do* cheat (so do faculty, sometimes). I was involved in an incident last semester - the student was remorseful after being caught, but that was a bit too late, I think.

4. pattpeterson - August 05, 2009 at 11:04 am

I agree with Cpparis comments. I was always uncomfortable that this could be the start of FERPA violations. If a student identifies themselves in the body of the paper - as several of my assignments would require, then submitting it to Turnitin could be interpreted as a violation of FERPA, not by the company, but by the professor and by extension - the school. I rely on being able to identify my student's writing voice and coach them on how to become better at expressing themselves. If I suspect that passages have been lifted without citation I say "this isn't your best work, try again - and more fully develop xxx".

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