Turnitin and hold your nose

I have been very neglectful of posting for the past two weeks, mostly due to the pressures of other work, but the attention paid to the recent court decision involving the online plagiarism detection service Turnitin has finally provoke me enough.

Turnitin is a web-based service that compares submitted papers to vast database of essays available on the web and it is own proprietary database. It offers instructors a report on how likely it is that the given paper is plagiarized. Four high school students from Virginia who were required to submit their work to Turnitin or get a zero challenged the company in court. The district court’s opinion, dismissing all of the students claims, was issued March 11 and has provoked a lot of reaction, The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story about those reactions here, and William Patry discusses several aspects of the case in his blog post called “Turn-it-it and Kiss-it-goodbye.”

One aspect of the decision worth mentioning is its discussion of the claim that Turnitin infringes copyright because it adds a copy of every paper to its database as soon as the paper is submitted so it can be compared to later submissions. The plaintiffs tried to prevent this by indicating their lack of consent to have their work copied in this way on the papers they submitted, but the court found that the click-through contract they were obligated to agree to in order to submit in the first place took precedence. More on that in a moment. On the copyright issue, the court found that the company had a valid fair use defense regarding their storage and use of student work, even if the contract giving them permission had failed (which it did not).

I have been torn about the fair use analysis the court used in this case. I have a hard time justifying to myself the business model Turnitin use, although my doubts are likely bound up with broader concerns about this kind of attempt to use technology to force people to behave with integrity. But, to my mind, Turnitin’s business model is as dependant on infringement as is Grokster. The district court disagreed, finding that Turnitin made a transformative use of the works it archived for later comparision. What strikes me most about this decision is the way “transformative use” has become a talisman, invoked whenever the court wants to find fair use. The copyright statute seems to indicate pretty clearly that even non-transformative uses can be fair use, but courts are now so enamored with the notion of transformation that they are now finding it even in unlikely situations because it has become the sine qua non of fair use. This is both good and bad for higher education; some educational uses of copyrighted works seem to be purely iterative, not transformative, and fair use in those cases seems increasingly hard to argue. On the other, the more the concept of transformative use is expanded, the better it will be for educational; some of those uses that don’t seem transformative to me may well seem so to our courts.

The other, more troubling aspect of the Turnitin decision was the court’s attitude to the click-wrap license. The plaintiff students had no choice but to click through the license; they faced a zero if they didn’t and there was no way to communicate with Turnitin until they had accepted the license. Nevertheless, they tried to make their objection to the term that allowed Turnitin to copy and save their work as soon as possible; they included a notice with their paper that said they did not consent. Tough luck, said the court; you agreed to the license and you have to live with it. This strict enforcement of a “take it or leave it” license even when the party on whom it is imposed objects in a timely way seems to make a mockery of the notion of a contract as a bargain that may be “unconscionable” if there is no meaningful chance to negotiate.

If we need further confirmation that the court was aiming at a particular result and disregarding a reasoned discuss of the law, there was its astonishing dismissal of the plaintiff’s argument that, as minors, contracts they entered into are voidable. The court recognized that this was the usual rule in contract law, but said that the plaintiffs could not avail themselves of it because they had accepted the “benefits” of the contract. What benefit had they accepted, I wondered. Standing to sue, the court replied, the right to bring the case to challenge the contract itself. By this logic, of course, no contract could ever be challenged on the basis of “infancy.” Such absurd and circular reasoning can only serve, as Bill Patry says, to increase the cynicism so many people feel toward our courts.

3 thoughts on “Turnitin and hold your nose”

  1. It is fascinating that software designed to prevent plagiarism would in turn take away someone’s ability to control the distribution of their own work…

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