About this letter
This letter is old, from 2001, and Turnitin.com has changed as a company -- most significantly with new ownership. But also since its arrival in 1997, its product's evolved, its approach to teaching about plagiarism is more sophisticated, it supports best practices that many teachers follow and use successfully.
Still, this letter has value because it points to a fundamental truth: that with course and writing assignment design, which the workshops I do focus on, Turntin.com really isn't necessary. See the final paragraph.
Context for LetterIn 2001, a student at a college which subscribes to Turnitin.com put a copyright statement on his essay, saying that his work couldn't be uploaded to any WWW site and archived. This meant that it couldn't be submitted to Turnitin.com (or a service such as Plagiserve.com, a free alternative to Turnitin.com that also archives submitted papers), which archives papers and adds them to the database that submissions are checked against.
The college checked with their lawyers, and with Turnitin.com on what to do if a student puts a copyright on their own work expressly forbidding their paper to be co-opted by a for profit service such as Turnitin.com. Below is Turnitin.com's reply to the matter of student copyright (They don't think much of it.).
Also, here's an excerpt from the writing center director at the college where this happened, describing what happened on the college end:
I also contacted our general counsel (the chancellor's legal team) for their thoughts. The wording in our institutional documents does not seem to compel students to give papers to this type of service, although it says that by enrolling, students give "limited rights for the instructor to mark on, grade, and retain" papers and to do whatever "as required by the process of instruction." Their final word was, let the student off the hook and don't submit the paper to the database. Now the provost wonders if this idea will catch on, effectively making his $4,000 investment a dud. I don't think this issue is going away.Turnitin.com's reply to the issue:
From: Paul Wedlake [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Thursday, October 25, 2001 5:55 PM
Subject: Legal issues regarding Turnitin.com
I've attached our Registration Agreement that outlines some of the issues we
discussed yesterday. I have also attached our Usage Agreement and Privacy
Please contact email@example.com if you need further assistance.
Below is our standard statement regarding the Copyright Issue:
We have spent considerable time and expense researching this issue. The
consistent opinion of our attorneys, plus those of the several schools that
have looked into it, including the University of California, is that fair
use does in fact allow us to store the student's papers. Here is a summary
of the reasoning:
We believe that use of the student's paper would be deemed fair because
rather than constituting infringement, the use prevents infringement of that
paper from occurring. The student's paper is only being used to catch
someone who might have stolen from it. That's the primary purpose of the
use and so it would likely be accorded even more deference than other
recognized purposes of fair use such as education, commentary and research
because its promotion of the underlying goal of the copyright statute, i.e.,
to promote creativity, is higher.
Most major recent fair use cases have identified "transformative use" as the
key question in fair use analysis. Transformative use means that the new
work is being used for a different purpose than the old work. In this case,
transformative use is present because the instructor is not using the paper
for its original purpose, i.e., turning an assignment in, research into a
topic, but is making a new use of the paper, i.e., checking for
Of the four fair use factors, effect on the market for the work is generally
considered the most important. In this case, the instructor's use of the
student paper isn't affecting any reasonably likely market because it's not
reasonable to assume that individual students could start licensing papers
to individual teachers for this purpose.
Thus, although the issues are complicated, we feel confident that the use of
Student papers in our system does constitute fair use. That being said, a
few precautions can greatly simplify the relationship between student,
institution and Turnitin.com.
Informing students of the use of the system in each course syllabus using
the product is the most important tool. This is the stop sign that prevents
most of the plagiarism in the first place (which should be the goal), and it
also insures that students are agreeing to take that course with the
provision that their papers may be submitted to our system.
Having students submit their work, rather than instructors submitting it,
adds one more level of consent on the part of the student, as nothing is
done without the student's knowledge. We do not feel that this is required
to meet the requirements of fair use, but it certainly removes any
Finally, offering the students an off-line alternative makes their consent
absolutely clear. For instance, as an alternative, the student could be
required to turn in a photocopy of the first page of all reference sources
used, an annotated bibliography, and a one page paper reflecting on their
research methodology. Such an option would be unlikely to be chosen by any
students, but if they did choose it, the chances of plagiarism would also be
Director of Sales
iParadigms, LLC., developers of Turnitin.com/Plagiarism.org
1624 Franklin St., Suite 818
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: 510-287-9720 ext. 223