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Students sue antiplagiarism website for rights to their homework

As the Internet democratizes publishing and companies build databases containing other people's work, similar court challenges may increase.

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When matches are found to an existing student paper, the teacher can ask the other student's teacher to see the earlier work in full.

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Critics of Turnitin such as Mr. Wade point out that this process doesn't seek the permission of the authors – the students. They also worry where the work could wind up in the longterm since iParadigms reserves the right to sell the database and its contents.

These "republishing" avenues are at the heart of the lawsuit filed late last month, which seeks $150,000 – the legally stipulated penalty – per paper registered by the four students.

"There is no way on God's green earth that we're ever going to turn a student's paper over to anybody except that student and their instructor until the end of time," says Barrie.

There still are those exceptions, which critics point out. But Barrie says, when a student's teacher decides to pass a paper to another teacher, no name is attached. And, in the event iParadigms is bought out, institutions can exercise their ability to cancel service and get their papers expunged.

That still doesn't give students any control, however, and parents say their children are facing coercion. Wade says his son was told by a teacher to use Turnitin and accept the company's terms of use, or face getting an F.

Lawyers weigh in on students' case

Experts in copyright law say that the age of the students helps their case, as minors aren't held as tightly to agreements that sign over rights.

Several top intellectual property lawyers say that if the case goes to court it could come down to a "fair use" judgment call. Fair use carves out exceptions to copyright to allow for a freer flow of information.

"It's been a confused and ambiguous issue long before the Internet came along," says Andrew Beckerman-Rodau, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. "The Internet just has made more cases come up because previously a lot of works that had no real value suddenly have value because you can distribute them on the Internet."

Demand is almost certainly nil for a teenager's ruminations on Moby Dick. At the university level, the issue is more pressing. Michael Smit, a critic of Turnitin, says he wrote papers with marketable ideas during his time as a computer science graduate student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia a school that uses the system.

"I have applied for patents. I came up with unique ideas during my university days. And I'm not a big fan of sending them to a company forever to store," he says.

However, databases like Turnitin, as well as Google's book-scanning project and search engines for images, also create a value of their own.

In some ways, the modern Web has been built upon such services where material is gathered and reused in ways that the original creators never had in mind, says Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University.

"One does not have to be a kind of copyright anarchist," he says, to appreciate the thicket that can arise when at any moment that somebody benefits from the action of another [online], the person can say, uh-uh-uh, pay me."