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Plagiarism-Detection Service Wins Ruling

(CN) - An online plagiarism-detection service did not violate the copyrights of four high-school students whose teachers required them to submit their essays to the company's digital archive, the 4th Circuit ruled. A three-judge panel held that the service qualified as fair use.

iParadigm operates the Turnitin Detection Service, a subscription service that high schools and colleges use to root out plagiarism. Turnitin compares students' work with Internet content, including papers previously submitted to Turnitin and commercial databases of journal articles and periodicals. Turnitin then sends the teacher or professor an "originality report" indicating what percentage of the work, if any, appears to have been plagiarized.

Schools can opt to archive the student submissions, allowing them to become part of Turnitin's digital database.

Two students from Virginia and two from Arizona filed a lawsuit through their parents, claiming iParadigms infringed their copyright interest in their work by archiving their essays, poems and fiction without permission. They said their teachers forced them to submit their assignments to Turnitin or receive a zero.

Three of the students submitted their papers with a disclaimer objecting to the archiving of their work. The fourth plaintiff submitted his paper using a password designated for college students, which his lawyer found on the Internet.

iParadigms counterclaimed that the fourth student had gained unauthorized access to its college services in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Virginia Computer Crimes Act.

The district court ruled for iParadigms on the copyright infringement claim, but dismissed the counterclaim.

The appeals court in Richmond, Va., agreed with the lower court's assessment of the copyright issue, saying iParadigms' use of the student essays was transformative and qualified as fair use under the Copyright Act.

The plaintiffs argued that iParadigms' use of their work can't be transformative, because the defendant never altered or added anything to it - Turnitin merely stores their papers in a database.

"The use of a copyrighted work need not alter or augment the work to be transformative in nature," Judge Traxler wrote. "Rather, it can be transformative in function or purpose without altering or actually adding to the original work."

The plaintiffs took a second angle, claiming that because the program doesn't catch paraphrasing and sometimes misses even verbatim copying, it can't be considered transformative.

"The question of whether a use is transformative does not rise or fall on whether the use perfectly achieves its intended purpose," Traxler wrote, rejecting the claim.

The court added that Turnitin neither reduces the market value of students' work nor undermines their right to first publication.

Ironically, the judges said the plaintiffs' "most plausible theory" was that the iParadigms archive made it more difficult for the plaintiffs to sell their papers to other high school students. But the plaintiffs testified that they would not sell their work, because doing so would encourage plagiarism.

The court revived iParadigms' counterclaim, however. The lower court had dismissed the claim on the basis that iParadigms "failed to produce any evidence of actual or economic damages."

The 4th Circuit said this analysis failed to consider the time and energy iParadigms spent investigating a possible technical glitch in the system, prompted by the discovery that a high-school student had registered and submitted papers as a university student.

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