By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Two McLean High School students have launched a court challenge against a California company hired by their school to catch cheaters, claiming the anti-plagiarism service violates copyright laws.
The lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, seeks $900,000 in damages from the for-profit service known as Turnitin. The service seeks to root out cheaters by comparing student term papers and essays against a database of more than 22 million student papers as well as online sources and electronic archives of journals. In the process, the student papers are added to the database.
Two Arizona high school students also are plaintiffs. None of the students is named in the lawsuit because they are minors.
"All of these kids are essentially straight-A students, and they have no interest in plagiarizing," said Robert A. Vanderhye, a McLean attorney representing the students pro bono. "The problem with [Turnitin] is the archiving of the documents. They are violating a right these students have to be in control of their own property."
Turnitin officials did not return calls for comment yesterday. A Fairfax County schools spokesman said the system would not comment on pending litigation.
The legal dispute comes amid a debate over the best way to ensure students are doing their own work at a time when the Internet can make it easy to cheat. Many educators, including Fairfax County school officials, say Turnitin is an effective way to police for plagiarism.
Attorneys for the company and various universities and public school systems, including Fairfax , have concluded that the service doesn't violate student rights. Turnitin is used by 6,000 institutions in 90 countries, including Harvard and Georgetown universities, company officials have said. Some public schools in Arlington, Prince George's and Loudoun counties use the service.
According to the lawsuit, each of the students obtained a copyright registration for papers they submitted to Turnitin. The lawsuit filed against Turnitin's parent company, iParadigms LLC, seeks $150,000 for each of six papers written by the students.
One of the McLean High plaintiffs wrote a paper titled "What Lies Beyond the Horizon." It was submitted to Turnitin with instructions that it not be archived, but it was, the lawsuit says.
Kevin Wade, that plaintiff's father, said he thinks schools should focus on teaching students cheating is wrong.
"You can't take a person's work and run it through a computer and make an honest person out of them," Wade said. "My son's major objection is that he does not cheat, and this assumes he does. This case is not about money, and we don't expect to get that."
Andrew Beckerman-Rodau, co-director of the intellectual property law program at Suffolk University Law School, said that although the law regarding fair use is subject to interpretation, he thinks the students have a good case.
"Typically, if you quote something for education purposes, scholarship or news reports, that's considered fair use," Beckerman-Rodau said. "But it seems like Turnitin is a commercial use. They turn around and sell this service, and it's expensive. And the service only works because they get these papers."