Student Authorship and Copyright on Turnitin

Numerous articles have been published within writing studies that are highly critical of plagiarism detection services (PDS), but their use remains prevalent both within and beyond the field. As Clancy Ratliff (2018) observed, "plagiarism is considered to be such a shocking transgression, [but] many teachers have embraced PDS in the service of justice: these platforms serve as sheriff (of sorts), keeping everyone honest" (p. 151). We often wonder if some whom we interact with, both within and outside of writing studies, interpret critiques of PDS platforms as an abstract form of technological moralism: "What kind of topsy-turvy ethics is this? I'm a good instructor upholding academic integrity! My own IP transgressions pale in comparison to those the plagiarists have made!" Yet, the aim of these disciplinary efforts has been to raise awareness of the ways these platforms are rooted in an asymmetrical economy that is not only unethical and pedagogically unsound (e.g., Morris & Stommel, 2017; Price, 2002; Purdy, 2005; Vie, 2013), but also problematic and unsustainable from an exchange perspective.

Table 2. Tensions in Student IP Heuristic Applied to Turnitin
Category Category Attributes
Users Students; graduate teaching assistants; instructors; faculty; programmatic, department, and institutional administrators; academic support staff; information technology staff; platform employees and staff
Permissions Instructors or programmatic, department, and/or institutional administrators purchase licenses to the platform and compel students to upload papers to platform as condition of participation in courses.

Student or instructors upload papers to PDS.

Click-wrap agreement where student agrees to platform terms of use.

Policies such as end-user license agreements (EULAs), as well as platform-specific copyright and privacy policies, govern use.
Inputs Student assignments, theses, dissertations, faculty articles, student names, dates, course, institution, number of citations, assignment type/genre, professor, style, lexicon, IP address, interactivity/behavior within platform, time spent logged in/active within platform, file metadata, geolocation, browser, computer.
Operations Spiders or indexing tools crawl textual, web (e.g., Wikipedia), and database (e.g., Proquest) content, creating unique and/or comparable co-locations. Comparative analysis identifies n-grams when a segment of text resembles content previously indexed by the repository.
Outputs Originality reports, phrases or sentences flagged within a document for further review, or tutorials that explain how a student might address or improve originality of a statement (e.g., a sentence flagged as unoriginal paraphrase [patchwriting] initiates a tutorial that explains strategies the student might use to improve the quality of the paraphrase).

Proprietary database of academic writing.

Proprietary algorithms trained using database.
Gateways Institutions or individuals pay fee or license use of platform services.

Students, instructors, and administrators gain ability to compare new inputs to a local or proprietary database of writing, including differential access to individual, course, and institutional reports and platform analytics insights.

Access to original inputs not provided to institutions, instructors, or students.
A black and white photoshopped illustration of
                    the Sheriff of Nottingham, holding a document, reads
                    'Ye Sheriff of Plaginham. On his chest, he wears the
                    text 'plagiarism police'.
Figure 10. A distinguished member of the Plagiarism Police reviews an originality report. A transcript for the audio file accompanying this figure has been provided.

While academics and teachers debate the tension between institutional academic integrity and student authors' rights vis-à-vis PDS platforms, those choosing to utilize Turnitin have bestowed the company with "a non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license" (as spelled out in Turnitin's "Terms of Use") to students' IP. In seeking a means to certify the integrity of learning, educators and administrators have ceded control of what might be classified as the the largest archive of student writing that has ever been amassed (Purdy, 2009). Moreover, Turnitin has claimed that it will use student IP "for the limited purpose of...providing the [plagiarism detection] Services," but the platform's user agreement also denotes that student IP can be used "for improving the quality of the Services generally."

Certainly, bestowing rights to access student IP is pedagogically significant, but also economically and creatively significant. Within a legal framework that regards transformative, value-added uses of copyright protected works, such as fair uses of IP (which the 2009 ruling of A.V. ex. rel. Vanderhye v. iParadigms, LLC (2009), the parent company of Turnitin, appeared to suggest),  educators, students, and administrators need to realize the implications of granting access to the raw IP students produce within pedagogical contexts. Once educational platforms like Turnitin have access to a steady stream of student IP inputs, they can mine, repackage, and resell those inputs as new productive outputs. The ambiguity of terms of use statements that govern how platforms might utilize student IP, specifically sections which platforms use to carve out opportunities to improve services, enables platforms to pivot from the core service to offer new and innovative services that repurpose inputs by building on them in ways that users might not expect or support. For instance, a representative from Turnitin recently announced on WPA-L that it was seeking to hire a Director of Pedagogy as it "shift[s] from [being] a plagiarism prevention company to a writing instruction company" (Mayfield, 2017).

Consequently, we wonder if students, educators, administrators, universities, and disciplines (and, perhaps, even platforms themselves) have underappreciated the innovative potentials that are wrapped up with having access, especially exclusive forms of access, to a rich supply chain of student IP—content, data, and metadata— that is generated within schools and university. Granting platforms these levels of access to student IP inputs, then, creates opportunities for downstream parties to make derivative works and products, which Turnitin has done from its reenvisioning what might be done with such a vast and proprietary collection of student papers. Just as proponents of open access have turned toward interrogating and critically thinking about what it means for scholars to publish in journals and books cordoned off behind pay-per-view paywalls, we, too, must begin to consider what it means for us to participate in systems where we grant third parties access to student IP, because these platforms might make use of inputs in ways that may not align with the pedagogical and social outcomes that educators, colleges and universities, and disciplines are working toward.

IP Cast 5: Asymmetry and Turnitin

IP Cast 5. Asymmetry and Plagiarism. Jessica, Les, and Tim discuss how the asymmetrical power relationships and user roles within plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin create tensions in the management of student-authored IP. Because users are integrated into different roles within platforms, those roles shape the different kinds of experiences users have as authors within platforms. User roles influence the inputs students and educators might make within a platform, the operations they can perform upon IP within a platform, as well as the gateways through which they might access (or be excluded from) platform outputs. A transcript of the conversation has also been provided.

Vanderhye v. iParadigms

What Can We Learn about Authorship from the Students Who Sued Turnitin?

A ubiquitous misuse of student‐authored texts manifests as large numbers of students have been forced to submit their creative and intellectual products to plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin. Turnitin, with the cooperation of universities, makes hundreds of thousands of dollars from the submissions that students are forced to provide, because they rely on a large database of student work to match texts and isolate what they consider plagiaristic passages. Students who take classes with professors who use software such as Turnitin are providing copyrighted content without compensation while filling the coffers of corporate entities such as Turnitin.

IP Cast 6. AV ex rel. v. iParadigms, LLC. TyAnna discusses the implications of AV ex rel. Vanderhye v. iParadigms, LLC for student-authored IP. In particular, TyAnna examines how permissions processes influence whether universities, instructors, and platforms may potentially infringe upon students' rights as authors. A transcript of the conversation has also been provided.

A 2009 legal case tested this practice in law, to some extent. In AV ex rel. Vanderhye v. iParadigms, LLC., high school students who had been forced to submit their class work to Turnitin.com, iParadigm's plagiarism detection service, claimed copyright infringement against their work on the basis that they never gave permission for Turnitin.com to use it. The Fourth Circuit court used the Perfect 10 case as a means to satisfy its decision that iParadigms, by way of Turnitin.com's actions, did not infringe the students' copyrights, by using a transformation argument that focused on transformative use of a work rather than the more common and constitutionally grounded approach that focuses on transformation of the work rather than the use.

The court supported iParadigms' claim that the nature of the work was a transformative use, focusing primarily on this one issue, to decide for the defendant and putting all emphasis on one case, Perfect 10, Inc. v. Google, in which that court had determined that pictures of women in a database could be copied in their entirety and re-used because the use was different from the original use. It dispensed with the other three factors of fair use, noting that the second factor, nature of the work, was insignificant because it made no use of the creative efforts in the students' works; for the third factor, relying on Perfect 10 again to claim that the amount and substantiality factor had no effect even though the whole of the students' works were used; and deciding that the fourth factor, the effect on the market was meaningless in this case, deciding that there was no market for the students' works.

The court in the iParadigms case wholly dispensed with students' interests in their work at every turn. The court in the Vanderhye case did not attempt to justify its decision on the basis of meeting constitutional goals, yet wholesale use of student work was allowed. To gain perspective, consider how this case would be treated if Disney movie scripts were the subject of iParadigms' control in some form of database. Of course, it is unlikely that this kind of use would ever happen because Disney is powerful enough to prevent it, regardless that for constitutional purposes, uses of Disney's copyrighted work has been allowed through the affirmative defense of fair use as a way to support commentary and speech (Lawrence, 1989, pp. 45-60).



The information and ideas contained in this webtext are not intended to be understood as legal advice, but rather as an exploration of the potential tensions that may exist between how authorship functions as a legal concept and how authorship is practiced and theorized in educational contexts.

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