Turnitin and Google Book Search: same thing?

by on March 30, 2007 · 10 comments

The Washington Post reports today on a couple of Virginia high school students who are suing anti-plagiarism service turnitin.com for copyright infringement. According to press accounts, the service is used by 6,000 schools, including Harvard and Georgetown. The way it works is that students turn in papers to their teachers by submitting them through Turnitin’s website. Turnitin then compares the submitted papers to a snapshot of the web, to databases of published articles, and to its own database of millions of other student papers. The problem is that the submitted papers are added to the company’s database of student papers without student permission. Plaintiffs in the case specifically marked their papers asking that they not be archived but they where nonetheless. The students have a website at dontturnitin.com.

What’s striking to me is how similar this is to Google Book Search. It remains to be seen whether Turnitin will make a fair use defense, but their past statements suggest that they will. (Here is a PDF of a legal opinion that Turnitin commissioned.)

Google is copying books without the copyright owners’ consent and storing them in a searchable database, just as Turnitin does with student papers. Google copies the whole book, but argues it’s a fair use because they only display a “snippet” of the text in search results. Turnitin also copies the whole work and only displays snippets to teachers if there’s a plagiarism match. Both Google and Turnitin make commercial use of the works they copy and they both arguably serve educational purposes. And If Google’s use doesn’t affect the “potential market” for licensing books to be included in searchable databases, then Turnitin’s use certainly doesn’t affect the potential market for licensing papers to be included in a plagiarism database.

So, can these cases be distinguished? If not, are they both fair use? I’m still thinking about this one, and I’d like to hear what your analysis is.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Well, one difference is that (I believe) the students specifically requested that their papers not be retained by turnitin, but that they did so anyway. Google Book Search has a robust opt-out mechanism. It’s not clear how important that is in a fair use analysis, though.

  • http://dsgazette.blogspot.com False Data

    Is there a legitimate market for student papers to be included in plagiarism-checking databases? Or for resale to further plagiarism?

    If there are no legitimate markets at all, it seems like that fact would tend to undercut the cost recovery rationale for copyright, limit the infringement argument (because there’s no improper appropriation), and maybe strengthen at least one factor of a fair use defense.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Well, one difference is that (I believe) the students specifically requested that their papers not be retained by turnitin, but that they did so anyway. Google Book Search has a robust opt-out mechanism. It’s not clear how important that is in a fair use analysis, though.

  • http://dsgazette.blogspot.com False Data

    Is there a legitimate market for student papers to be included in plagiarism-checking databases? Or for resale to further plagiarism?

    If there are no legitimate markets at all, it seems like that fact would tend to undercut the cost recovery rationale for copyright, limit the infringement argument (because there’s no improper appropriation), and maybe strengthen at least one factor of a fair use defense.

  • Anonymous

    One would also think that the coercive nature of having to submit papers for grading combined with a lack of opt-out mechanisms might make a difference.

    In the case of student papers, Turnitin is scanning un-published works as opposed to published ones. These papers may contain the private thoughts and opinions of the students, intended only to be seen by the instructor and no one else. In addition to copyright issues, these papers may have privacy issues as well. In addition, to what degree can a commercial company use the works of minors without their consent?

    However, I think that my problem on this issue is that I have a gut feeling of unfairness regarding this issue which an objective comparison to Google . It would seem that the biggest difference is the fact that Google spiders and scans published works whereas Turnitin archives unpublished works coercively obtained from students.

  • Anonymous

    One would also think that the coercive nature of having to submit papers for grading combined with a lack of opt-out mechanisms might make a difference.

    In the case of student papers, Turnitin is scanning un-published works as opposed to published ones. These papers may contain the private thoughts and opinions of the students, intended only to be seen by the instructor and no one else. In addition to copyright issues, these papers may have privacy issues as well. In addition, to what degree can a commercial company use the works of minors without their consent?

    However, I think that my problem on this issue is that I have a gut feeling of unfairness regarding this issue which an objective comparison to Google . It would seem that the biggest difference is the fact that Google spiders and scans published works whereas Turnitin archives unpublished works coercively obtained from students.

  • marcel h

    Turnitin does have an opt out mechanism to not save the students’ papers to the database, but the instructor has to set it up in the assignment.

    If Turnitin was used as designed, as a teaching tool, allowing the students to do a self-check of their papers, this lawsuit probably never would have happened. Most people are ignorant to the fact that a large percentage of the student papers that are submitted consist of words and ideas taken from other authors without proper citation or acknowledgment. The student that initiated this whole scam lawsuit is a D level student. Do you think it is fair to the honest, hardworking students when the cheaters get better grades on papers by using what someone else wrote?

  • marcel h

    Turnitin does have an opt out mechanism to not save the students’ papers to the database, but the instructor has to set it up in the assignment.

    If Turnitin was used as designed, as a teaching tool, allowing the students to do a self-check of their papers, this lawsuit probably never would have happened. Most people are ignorant to the fact that a large percentage of the student papers that are submitted consist of words and ideas taken from other authors without proper citation or acknowledgment. The student that initiated this whole scam lawsuit is a D level student. Do you think it is fair to the honest, hardworking students when the cheaters get better grades on papers by using what someone else wrote?

  • Anonymous

    “Do you think it is fair to the honest, hardworking students when the cheaters get better grades on papers by using what someone else wrote?”

    Isn’t that a false conundrum? I don’t think the equation is Turnitin is legal moral and therefore anyone who thinks otherwise is in favor of unfairness and cheaters. It is perfectly possible to think that Turnitin could be a violation of copyright even if it serves a potentially reasonable end. However, I don’t buy your implied “the end justifies the means” rationale.

  • Anonymous

    “Do you think it is fair to the honest, hardworking students when the cheaters get better grades on papers by using what someone else wrote?”

    Isn’t that a false conundrum? I don’t think the equation is Turnitin is legal moral and therefore anyone who thinks otherwise is in favor of unfairness and cheaters. It is perfectly possible to think that Turnitin could be a violation of copyright even if it serves a potentially reasonable end. However, I don’t buy your implied “the end justifies the means” rationale.

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