Judge: Turnitin.com doesn’t violate copyright laws

A federal district court judge threw out a lawsuit against the online plagiarism detection service Turnitin.com last month, ruling the web site–which stores student papers in its database and compares them with new submissions–does not violate copyright laws.

Students at McLean High School in Fairfax County, Va., and the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona filed a lawsuit in October 2006 arguing that Turnitin.com committed copyright infringement when it stored digital copies of students’ essays in its database. U.S. District Court Judge Claude M. Hilton ruled March 11 that unauthorized use of copyrighted work for news reporting, comment, and teaching did not constitute copyright infringement. 

Turnitin allows teachers to compare students’ work to more than 22 million online submissions and internet sources, ensuring that assignments are not too similar or identical to any other published works. School officials in Fairfax County, Tucson, and other users of the online service have said they had seen a sharp rise in plagiarism in recent years as students were able to research–and sometimes copy–other people’s published works from the internet.

In his March 11 opinion, Hilton said although Turnitin profits from compiling a database of student works, the web site "provides a substantial public benefit through the network of educational institutions."

The lawsuit changed school officials’ plans in fall 2006. All McLean High School students were going to be required to submit their works on Turnitin.com, but officials scaled back the effort when the legal trouble began, instead implementing the requirement in phases.

Currently, 17 of 25 Fairfax County high schools require papers and essays to be submitted to Turnitin. Paul Regnier, a spokesman for the school system, said principals have been given the choice whether to use plagiarism-detection sites.

More than 7,000 school systems and other education institutions use Turnitin, which is operated by California-based iParadigms LLC, and more than 100,000 papers and essays are submitted to the web site every day.   

Katie Povejsil, vice president of marketing for iParadigms, said the judge’s ruling reflected the company’s argument over the last two years: that Turnitin existed simply to provide educators with essays to compare to, not to display students’ written works for public consumption. 

"We use them for their comparative value only," Povejsil said. "This doesn’t diminish their value as creative works or expressive works."

Povejsil said the students’ lawsuit and the case’s national media attention threatened to damage Turnitin’s reputation, but Hilton’s opinion could strengthen the company, showing anti-plagiarism web sites can hold up in court.

"When a company is involved in a lawsuit, it’s not the best thing, but we were very pleased with the outcome," she said, adding that potential customers "watched this case very closely. … It very much reaffirmed our own principles about the business."

Robert A. Vanderhye, an Arlington, Va.-based attorney who represented the high school students, said he was surprised the case was dismissed in Hilton’s summary judgment.

"It’s very unusual," Vanderhye said. "There are facts to dispute here … and we believe the law is on our side."

Vanderhye said the Fairfax County students, who are still attending high school in the county, would not speak to reporters. He filed an appeal April 9, although he wasn’t sure when the case would return to the courtroom. 

Despite Hilton’s firm stance on Turnitin’s legality, some educators who followed the court case cautioned that using plagiarism-detection sites should not be a substitute for having classroom discussions on the definition and dangers of internet plagiarism. 

"It’s still a cyber war between students and teachers," said Rebecca Ingalls, an English professor at the University of Tampa and a critic of Turnitin. "There’s a conversation that’s not being had. There’s a chance to educate here, but [using Turnitin] is just it policing and looking at students as criminals."

Ingalls, unlike some of her peers in Tampa’s English Department, said she does not use plagiarism-detection web sites.

Unlike search engines such as Yahoo! or Google, Turnitin and dozens of similar anti-plagiarism sites do not match keywords in stored documents. Instead, they create a digital fingerprint of an entire document and compare it to published works online and in databases.

High schools and colleges are not the only institutions looking for ways to curb plagiarism. Many businesses and newspapers have begun using plagiarism watchdog sites in the last five years as well, experts said.

iParadigms charges schools and universities $500 annually and 60 cents per student for the Turnitin service. Businesses pay $1,000 a year and $10 for every page submitted to the site. Fees for newspapers vary depending on the paper’s circulation.

University studies conducted in recent years show that internet plagiarism is a persistent problem. In a 2003 survey conducted by a Rutgers University professor, 38 percent of students said they plagiarized from online sources over the previous year. The survey polled 18,000 college students on 23 campuses across the country.



Fairfax County Public Schools

Tucson Unified School District

University of Tampa


Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Minimizing Classroom Distruptions resource center. Computers and the internet have become welcome instructional tools in most schools, ushering a wealth of additional resources into today’s classrooms. Unfortunately, they also bring with them the potential for unwanted distractions–such as online content that ranges from off-target, to inappropriate, material. Go to: Minimizing Classroom Disruptions

Denny Carter

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.