Turn it Off

Kudos to the bloggers at ACRL! I wasn’t in Baltimore but just reading the blog got a good sense of the usual intellectual overload. Wow!

Meanhwile . . . high School students have sued the plagiarism-detection giant, Turnitin, for … well, not plagiarism, but something that’s actually a criminal offense. Copyright violation.

According to the Washington Post story

“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.” . . .

“You can’t take a person’s work and run it through a computer and make an honest person out of them,” Wade [one of the plaintiff's parents ] 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.”

Reminds me of the systems being designed to locate copyright violations by massively copying people’s Webpages. Copyright violation is okay so long as it catches plagiarists and copyright violators? That’s like saying breaking and entering a whole neighborhood of houses is okay so long as you’re looking for goods stolen while breaking and entering. Or to to scare people who might consider breaking and entering. That’ll learn you!

I know a lot of libraries are involved in using Turnitin at their institutions to help educate students about plagiarism (or, at least, put the frighteners on). I’ve seen pedagogical arguments made about Turnitin, both pro and con. But what does it teach students about the sanctity of intellectual property (if there is such a thing) to catch theft by systematically taking their words? Isn’t that a mixed message at best?

About Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

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