Turnitin.com Vindicated by Court Decision on Fair Use

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck a blow to students who were attempting to shut down the website/service Turnitin.com (which allows faculty to compare the work submitted by their students to other established works as well as the works submitted by other faculty) with a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement.

The decision is a good one, because services like Turnitin.com are valuable for faculty who are increasingly pressed for time and cannot interrogate every student they suspect of lifting material without attributing it. The phenomena is disappointingly-common (as I’ve found in my own personal experience) – usually as a result of naivete about the need to properly attribute cited material, but also too often as a result of graft on the part of services that buy and sell papers previously submitted by other students.

Services like Turnitin.com have been successful enough that the services selling papers to lazy students have moved to specializing in custom-written papers that would elude detection (having not previously been submitted for a grade).

The students’ concern about Turnitin.com holding on to their work isn’t completely without merit, however; one could envision a future incident where Turnitin.com might try to profit from those papers if it were ever strapped for cash (say, by publishing them for other students as “study aids”) – so it would be good to see the courts articulate some sort of provision that narrowly restricts the interpretation of this decision to the limited use of the archived papers to comparing them for plagiarism.

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