If a company digitally stores and uses student-written academic papers to compare them to other student papers for an online plagiarism detection business, is that a form of plagiarism itself?
Four school students in Virginia and Arizona say yes, according to a lawsuit filed on their behalf against iParadigms, the company that operates the plagiarism detection web site, Turnitin.com.
In an 11-page lawsuit filed 27 March, the four plaintiffs, who are not identified because they are minors, allege that the company infringed on their writings by including them in the Turnitin.com database, which is available for comparisons to other papers. The lawsuit alleges copyright infringement and seeks damages of more than £450,000.
"Copyright infringement is one form of plagiarism," said Robert Vanderhye, an attorney who is handling the case on a pro bono basis. "But not all plagiarism is copyright infringement."
The plagiarism detection services are used in the schools the students attend, according to the lawsuit. The schools told the students that unless they submitted their papers to Turnitin.com for analysis and inclusion in the database, they would receive failing grades for their papers.
Vanderhye said McLean High School began using Turnitin.com last October in an effort to ensure that students were not plagiarising the work of others. "For that, they're willing to give up the students' intellectual property rights," he said.
"We believe there are real privacy concerns with this, too," because the students' writings are kept in a database and could potentially be stolen by hackers in a security breach, he said. "When you were 14 years old, I'm sure you wrote some things that you wouldn't want to come out later."
In preparation for the lawsuit, the students' papers were registered with the US copyright office and received copyright registration numbers before they were turned in, Vanderhye said. That step was taken because iParadigm "thumbed its nose" at previous written requests to remove the students' papers from its database. "The only recourse they have is to file suit and the only way to file suit is to get a copyright registration."
John Barrie, the CEO and president of iParadigms, said his company is vigorously fighting the suit, which was filed in a US Court.
None of the stored academic papers in the company's growing database is ever visible or available to anyone other than the student who wrote it and the teacher who grades it, he said. The database, which includes more than 10 million papers from students in high schools, colleges and universities in more than 90 nations, then uses an algorithm to look for digital fingerprints in comparing papers -- without identifying or exhibiting any of the stored papers to anyone else, he said.
Turnitin.com compares newly submitted academic papers to the works already in its database, allowing schools to check for plagiarism through the receipt of detailed analysis reports produced for each received paper. "We're not violating their copyrights," Barrie said. "Essentially, what you have here is four disgruntled and uninformed high school students telling the rest of the world that 'you can't use Turnitin and we're going to see to that.'
"If these students would succeed, it would be tantamount to declaring a national day for cheaters."
Ilan Barzilay, an intellectual property attorney said that even if the papers are never actually seen by others, there "still could be some inappropriate copying going on, on the part of Turnitin and iParadigms. You can't just make copies of others' works and profit by it. It is a fascinating legal issue."
On the other hand, he said, a court could rule that fair use doctrine, which outlines acceptable, fair uses for copyrighted materials, could allow such uses of student papers. In that case, Barzilay said, the fair use doctrine could extend the use of the materials beyond the author's original intentions, which is permissible. Examples of that include parodies, satire or educational uses such as copying sections of a poem to distribute it to students for discussion in class.
The issue has been bubbling to the surface in the McLean School District for some time, which led to the creation of a DontTurnItIn.com web site as a "forum for McLean high school students and parents" on the issue.