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.