EDUCATION

HOW NOT TO CATCH A THIEF

A top anti-plagiarism service gets sued for copyright infringement

BARBARA RIGHTON June 11 2007
EDUCATION

HOW NOT TO CATCH A THIEF

A top anti-plagiarism service gets sued for copyright infringement

BARBARA RIGHTON June 11 2007

HOW NOT TO CATCH A THIEF

EDUCATION

A top anti-plagiarism service gets sued for copyright infringement

BARBARA RIGHTON

Depending on whom you talk to, former University of California, Berkeley neurobiologist John Barrie is either the saviour of modern education or a shameless opportunist. For 10 years, Barrie has sold his online anti-plagiarism service, Turnitin, to grateful high schools and universities wrestling with a plague of plagiarism born of the Internet. His promise to catch cheaters by exposing “every single word, phrase, paragraph and page that came from any other source,” and his vast data bank of essays, has earned him clients in 90 countries, including Canada.

The system has become so popular that teachers now require students to file essays directly to the service, making for a whopping 100,000 submissions a day. Even with a fee of less than a dollar a paper vetted, the 39-yearold has become a very rich man. From his office in Oakland, Calif., he proudly points to the fact that Turnitin returns some 30 per cent of all essays colour-coded, annotated and stamped as stolen.

But now a group of high-school students has launched a lawsuit in Virginia based on copyright infringement that asks for US$900,000 in damages, the maximum allowed under U.S. copyright law. The suit is aimed at Barrie’s main competitive advantage, the storage and use of those 100,000 essays a day as antiplagiarism fodder. Perhaps it takes a thief to catch a thief, but the man who is handling the suit, retired intellectual property lawyer Robert Vanderhye of McLean, Va., accuses Barrie of stealing from kids. “Last year, he made $80 million with costs that are insignificant,” Vanderhye says. “And the people

who provided the material for his database? They got zero. I don’t think most people would think that was fair.”

If the students win, Barrie could lose the 40 million essays he uses in addition to his arsenal of books, newspapers, magazines, journals and an archived copy of every syllable that has appeared on the Web over the past seven years. In other words, it could put Turnitin in jeopardy, and leave hundreds of thousands of teachers floundering. Barrie could have seen it coming. Turnitin has drawn its share of protest over the years. Students say it treats them as guilty until proven innocent, and in 2004, a student at McGill University refused to hand over his work to Turnitin, and won.

In 2005, the University of Victoria dropped Turnitin after two years because it was storing the papers on its U.S. database, and that seemed an infringement of the B.C. privacy act. At McLean High, the kids simply revolted.

Ben Donovan, 18, is the one Barrie calls the ringleader, though the kids

suing him are four minors (two of them from an Arizona school). Donovan and six friends formed the Committee for Students’ Rights in reaction to their school’s announcement last September that it was instituting Turnitin and students should understand that “by submitting their work for a grade” they were agreeing to the cataloguing of their work. “That was just a lie,” Donovan says.

The McLean seven, who quickly grew into an army of 1,200 angry students, objected strenuously to the idea that their essays would be used—free of charge—to make Barrie more money. Donovan, whose parents met in journalism school and whose dad is a lawyer, contacted the Washington Post, which obliged by writing a story about the brouhaha on Sept. 24. “That really got the ball rolling,” Donovan says. On Oct. 16, Barrie flew out to McLean to address the student body’s concerns, but in spite of what he says were his best efforts to “explain that Turnitin was a learning tool,” he was savaged at a PTA meeting where students called him a liar to his face and said, “F-k you.”

Things got worse. On Nov. 15, Vanderhye, acting pro bono on behalf of the students, wrote Barrie a letter that said his practice of archiving manuscripts was a clear copyright violation. It asked for certain McLean papers to be purged from the database. Barrie refused. “It is a sad, sad day when students and parents are determining what a school’s policy should be,” he says. Barrie says Vanderhye agreed to settle the matter—before he launched the suit on March 27. Vanderhye expects a trial by the fall. “There are hundreds of thousands of college students across the world who hate Turnitin with a passion,” he says. “But how can one average student afford litigation? That’s what Turnitin has relied upon.” Turnitin has its fans, teachers like philosophy professor Darren Abramson at Dalhousie who says the current system is “a useful resource.” He makes Turnitin mandatory, particularly in large undergrad classes, and gets no protests. “We did discuss the argument in a computer ethics course that students’ intellectual property was becoming a resource of the company,” Abramson adds. “We didn’t find it compelling.” No doubt John Barrie is hoping a judge will feel the same. M