Who owns homework?

Four high school students are suing TurnItIn, an antiplagiarism business, for using their homework to catch cheaters.

The saga began last year when McLean High School in Virginia adopted a widely used antiplagiarism service called Turnitin. Under the system, students electronically submit essays to be stored and compared against millions of others in a massive database. Teachers can see if students are lifting work – a valuable tool given that research has found that 40 percent of undergraduate students admit to copying and pasting passages from websites.

But the setup rankled some students, who argued they shouldn’t have to surrender their personal writing and persuasive essays – along with their names and e-mail addresses – to a computer bank in California.

If Sally Student’s essay on “Symbolism in The Great Gatsby” is original, it’s no use to TurnItIn. They’re checking to see if someone else turned in a suspiciously similar essay. Sally’s work helps the company only if it’s copied.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. You can’t be serious. How can they tell whether or not it’s a “suspiciously familiar” essay unless they have the original in their database? The original essays are critical to Turnitin’s business model, and the students have an excellent case. I think Turnitin will either have to figure out a way to pay for the original essays, or close down.

  2. Nels Nelson says:

    The service’s main selling point is that it has an enormous database of papers, and that it can catch future cheating, so every essay is of value to it.

    What would be the point of a service that only catalogued papers that had already been copied, and how would it even determine which essays had been copied if it didn’t collect every possible paper?

  3. Nonsense. Students have no copyright on homework. This is no different than some student claiming copyright and refusing to allow his professor to read it–and demanding a grade.

    The obvious solution for us is to have students sign a legal document giving up all claim on copyright–or not turn in the paper and fail it.

    They’re students, not authors.

  4. “Nonsense. Students have no copyright on homework. This is no different than some student claiming copyright and refusing to allow his professor to read it–and demanding a grade.

    The obvious solution for us is to have students sign a legal document giving up all claim on copyright–or not turn in the paper and fail it.”

    Right. Fallacious argument, much? If you really think students have no copyright regarding homework, try filching a student essay and…I don’t know, getting it published in a paper somewhere. Make an anthology of your students’ work. Unless you have the student’s permission, you’d hit a brick wall. (Note: Yes, this is a hypothetical situation, as I know that very, very, VERY rare is the student paper that is worthy of being published)

    “They’re students, not authors.” The two are not mutually exclusive (you’re a professor, shouldn’t you understand that concept?). When I write a paper, then YES, I am the author of that paper. And aside from the teacher reading it and assigning it a grade (which is a “contract” of sorts that I implicitly agree to by being a student, so your first analogy doesn’t hold much water, if at all)…you really have no rights to it at all.

    As for your “obvious solution”, it is so obviously ridiculous that I have to assume you’re being deliberately hyperbolic.

  5. Richard Nieporent says:

    Actually, JJ the issue is more complicated that you make it out to be. Yes a student, like anybody else, automatically gets copyright protection for an “original “ essay. Part of the complication is how Turnitin, makes use of the essay. They don’t use the paper directly but instead process a copy of the paper through an algorithm that transforms it into a form that is used to compare against other papers. Whether the courts will allow them to do this is an open question. Professor Eugene Volokh believes that it will pass muster with the courts, but of course the courts can rule anyway they want.

  6. The question turns on whether this is a fair use of copyrighted material, not whether it is copyrighted. As I understand the current copyright laws, copyright attaches upon publication (which would include printing it and handing it in for an assignment). (Note that copyright attaches to dreck as well as publishable work.)

    There are elements of this that argue against fair use: the use is commercial and turnitin is using the entire piece rather than an excerpt. It is also arguably destroying the market for a student selling to a competitor that does not get all these papers free.

    My feel is that this is a bit of a close case, but IANAL. From the Volokh comment thread, I don’t think I’m alone, though.

  7. time for the students to add the copywrite symbol and licensing schedule, then just take it to small claims court. death by a thousand cuts.

  8. The solution to preventing plagiarism is for teachers to be more inventive in our assignments. If we keep assigning the same tired topics — or no specific topics — then we are opening the door for lazy, anti-intellectual students.

    -Create original assignments.
    -Read student papers closely to ensure they are responsive to that assignmnet.
    -If necessary, require students to defend their work.

    But as for the intellectual property rights of homework, they belong to the student — unless he or she plagiarized it or unless she or he signed away those rights.

  9. drafts and revisions are key weapons in the battle against plagiarism.

  10. Either turnitin.com or fail the paper–or drop the class.

    Their choice.

  11. Devilbunny says:

    It’s a public high school, rightwingprof. At least some of the students there do not have the option to stop attending it.

  12. While I’m a big fan of RightWingProf’s, he and I disagree on this one.

    If for no other reason than principle, it’s wrong for Turnitin to make money off of work they didn’t do. And to compel students to help Turnitin make money by giving up their essays is egregious.

    I have no problem with students’ being required to turn their essays in to Turnitin to be checked for potential plagiarism; the problem is when Turnitin keeps those news essays and adds them to its database *without compensating the students*. If they want to make money, here’s what I’d suggest. If it wants to add an essay to its database, Turnitin should be required to compensate the student for his/her work. This way, everyone wins.

    But to allow a commercial firm to make money off someone else’s work? Oh no.

  13. Half Canadian says:

    How about this for a solution? Turn in the final draft with a consent form that it may be submitted to Turnitin, OR turn in all of your notes with the final draft.

    The reason for notes? Because when I wrote college papers, I saved revisions over the original document (how did people write papers before word processors?). We need a way to prevent plagirism. If we sue a tool into oblivion because of copyright concerns (and Turnitin is very unlike publishing an essay in magazine), we are opening the door for plagerists.

  14. But then, Half Canadian, where would all of us last-minute procrastinators fit in? 😉

    I also don’t have a problem turning any papers in for plagiarism-checking…but I don’t want the people at Turnitin to profit from my work (and they ARE profiting from students’ work, because without the original papers to make up its database, Turnitin wouldn’t work). And that’s what they’re doing. Maybe if there happened to be some sort of non-profit outfit doing the same thing…

  15. Richard Nieporent says:

    I also don’t have a problem turning any papers in for plagiarism-checking … but I don’t want the people at Turnitin to profit from my work (and they ARE profiting from students’ work, because without the original papers to make up its database, Turnitin wouldn’t work).

    JJ, your comment reminds me of this old joke:

    A Rabbi, a minister, and a priest are playing poker when the police raid the game).

    Addressing the priest, the lead officer asks: “Father Murphy, were you gambling?” Turning his eyes to heaven, the priest whispers, “Lord, forgive me for what I am about to do.” To the police officer, he then says, “No, officer, I was not gambling).

    The officer then asks the minister: “Pastor Johnson, were you gambling?” Again, after an appeal to heaven, the minister replies, “No, officer, I was not gambling.” Turning to the rabbi, the officer again asks: “Rabbi Goldstein, were you gambling?” Shrugging his shoulders, the rabbi replies: “With whom?”

    Since it would not be economically feasible to pay students for the use of their papers, with whose papers is Turnitin going to check the student’s paper against to see if he or she committed plagiarism? The profit that Turnitin makes is a red herring. They are performing a service that in no way prevents students from making money by publishing their papers (unless of course it was plagiarized!), which should be the purpose of the copyright law. Obviously if the courts rule otherwise then Turnitin will go out of business and student’s will find it easier to get away with plagiarism.

  16. They aren’t going to perform this “service” if they don’t make a profit. so it’s hardly a red herring. Yet, it isn’t the real issue.

    I find it very disturbing that a public institution or an educator for a public institution can require an individual (especially a minor) to provide material to a business.

    Chris is spot on: you can make sure students aren’t plagarizing by doing your job as a teacher the right way – by teaching them how to compose a thought, contemplate how they express it, and revise your material frequently. Requiring students to do this, by reguarly submitting rough drafts and edits, will screen out the cheats.

  17. Except, of course, that a certain percentage of the human race is lazy, and prone to corruption. There is also the old proverb about horses and water.

    The students who submit original work to Turnitin *do* profit from the submission. They help to raise the costs for plagiarists significantly, thus increasing the chance that their work will be compared to their classmates’ real work, not to purchased, or Googled, papers. Since they’re presumably in the same classes, it also makes the competition between students more equitable, if everyone has to write every paper.

    They also profit from the opportunity to write papers at home. One solution, should Turnitin go out of business, would be to require essays to be written in class. Bring in your notes, but compose it in school, before witnesses. The school year would have to be lengthened, to allow essay writing time. Is that preferable?

  18. no, that is not preferable; it is a classic strawman argument. Thomas said it even eloquently: teach writing well with citations and drafts and the problem vanishes rapidly.

  19. “They help to raise the costs for plagiarists significantly, thus increasing the chance that their work will be compared to their classmates’ real work, not to purchased, or Googled, papers.”

    That argument only works if your grade is affected by other students’ papers. I don’t know how things work at other colleges, but my grades were assigned to me independent of how my peers did. I have heard about classes (mainly in science and engineering at the college level, it seems like) where the curve is structured in such a way that only the top 20% of students are allowed to get A’s and such, but that is the exception, not the rule.

  20. Except, of course, that a certain percentage of the human race is lazy, and prone to corruption.

    You’re talking about teachers, no?

    I think many educators could do a much better job teaching students how to write. That requires effort, however, they themselves may not be willing to give.

  21. Chris: “It is a classic strawman argument.”

    It’s already scheduled to happen in Britian:

    “SWEEPING cuts to GCSE coursework were announced yesterday in response to widespread fears that it has allowed students to copy from the internet or to get their teachers and parents to complete projects for them.
    Coursework completed by pupils at home will be scrapped in English literature, foreign languages, history, geography, classical subjects, religious studies, social sciences, business studies and economics for courses starting in 2009.

    Instead, the examinations watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), said that there would be more external exams and controlled assessments carried out in the classroom under strict supervision and marked by teachers.”

    (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article663225.ece)

    The article is worth reading in its entirety, in light of this debate.

    I also do not see how requiring notes and prior drafts will stamp out plagiarism. Essay companies will (have already begun to?) retool their services to include notes and drafts.

    I do not demand that high school teachers should be able to catch plagiarism every time it occurs. Even the most dedicated teacher isn’t omniscient. Again, those students who submit their own work, and don’t plan to resell their work to others, are those who stand to gain from Turnitin.

    The competitive costs are not only found in classes which grade on the curve. Sally Sunshine submits all her own work, in 3 APs and sundry honors courses. Jane Joker purchases her essays, for the same courses. Which student, do you think, has more free time for the (insane) load of extracurricular activities expected by elite colleges?

  22. I think Turnitin is violating student copyrights. But, sadly, I think the courts will probably rule using the same arguments they’ve used in student newspaper/freedom of speech cases: that high school students don’t have all the same rights as adults.

    Unfortunately, our society whines all the time about how today’s teenagers don’t take responsibility for their actions or educations. But who can blame the students when the courts decide that they don’t really have any rights in our society?

  23. I also do not see how requiring notes and prior drafts will stamp out plagiarism. Essay companies will (have already begun to?) retool their services to include notes and drafts.

    A simple three-minute conference after turning in the notes and first draft will expose someone who is outsourcing their information. Unless the teacher himself is completely ignorant about the topic, he can easily find a couple of questions to probe the student about. This also helps the genuine student because they get help in refocusing their content.

  24. First, the students do automatically have a copyright on any original work that they produce, once it is fixed in form.

    Second, fair use allows a copyrighted work to be analyzed and excerpted, compared to other works and so on, especially for educational purposes. There is reason to believe that a business can keep a copy of a work for such analysis, especially if that copy is kept in a pre-analyzed form rather than its initial form.

    Third, infringement is unlikely to occur where a related work is in a different form, or for a different purpose. For example, if someone paints a picture related to a book–and of course not derivative of a movie related to that book–then that painting is unlikely to infringe the book’s copyright.

    Fourth, damage awards in copyright infringement suits are primarily related to the loss of commercial value of the infringed work, which in this case is zero.

    Fifth, the plaintiffs claim is odd on the face – they claim that they are trying to prevent a copyright violation, but their action is an attempt to make a violation of their own work by other students possible. In fact, their strongest claim is that Turnitin is reducing their ability to sell their copyrighted work to would-be plagiarists. This is unlikely to fly in court, since the purpose of Copyright law is to encourage new work, and their strongest claim has no positive effect in that direction.