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Turnitin, Fair Use Hero

There’s an irony in the recent court victory of the anti-plagiarism site Turnitin. I believe that Turnitin protects the jobs of the laziest group of teachers across the nation—people who assign the same general assignment year after year. Worse, Turnitin depends on a romantic and wrong idea of creativity (individual originality as the highest value), and it forms part of the copyright mis-education of American students by associating all copying and collaborating with cheating.

But when it got sued, it turned to Fair Use—the right under copyright to use other copyrighted work under certain circumstances. (More on Fair Use here)

The site, which collects student homework and adds it to a database that can be scanned for plagiarism, was challenged by students who claimed that the site took their intellectual property. (You can catch up at Google attorney William Patry’s blog) The judge found that the students didn’t have a case because, among other things, that Turnitin’s use of the students’ material was clearly Fair Use. It repurposed their work, transforming the use from its original purpose. Its use was limited to that other purpose, which did not impair the market value of the students’ original work.

So let the students—and the teachers—take a real lesson from Turnitin. Quoting from other people’s copyrighted work is sometimes, even often, fair. Not all copying is cheating, or copyright violation.