My university uses TurnItIn to check student's work for plagiarism and collusion. I think the underlying TurnItIn database includes both submitted work and material it has found by crawling the web, but not material behind pay walls. One major issue with TurnItIn, and presumably all plagiarism detection software, is that it can only compare submitted work to material which is in the database. This means that TurnItIn either misses when students copy from textbooks which are behind a pay wall or matches other sources which have plagiarised the textbook.

My department's academic misconduct committee is thinking about seeding the TurnItIn database with the textbook chapters that are most often used by the students by submitting a number of "assignments" that are copies of the textbook chapters. This would require an individual member(s) of staff to submit assignments that contained copied copyright material. Is it possible that this could get the staff member in trouble in the future? We were thinking about adding something like:

The following submission is intended to seed the TurnItIn database and is an exact copy of FULL REFERENCE.

Would this work, or would TurnItIn realize that it is being given copyrighted material and purge it from its database?

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    I'd be less concerned about TurnItIn purging it than about the copyright holder suing the pants off you. You'd probably have to discuss this with your institution's lawyers. – Stephan Kolassa Feb 6 '15 at 13:40
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    @StephanKolassa I agree, but I wouldn't be the one making money off it, TurnItIn would be, so I think they would be more at risk. – StrongBad Feb 6 '15 at 13:49
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    Use should check with the folks at Turnitin, but I believe that it makes use of the Crossref database which includes published materials (journals, conference proceedings and books) from most commercial publishers. See crossref.org – Brian Borchers Feb 6 '15 at 15:04
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    @StrongBad, profit has only a small part to do with it. If you are trying to make a fair use argument in the US, that's one prong (market for the work), but it's not everything. Copyright law allows the holder to control distribution of copies, and by sending it to TurnItIn, you are distributing a copy without permission. Don't open yourself to suit. Fair use is a defense to suit, not a get out of jail free card. You still might have to go to court to defend a suit, which is expensive. Just don't do it. – Bill Barth Feb 6 '15 at 16:31
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    so your ethics say, if the legal case is unclear, just do what you want? — Oh, come on. Not basing your ethics on existing law doesn't mean you don't have any. – JeffE Feb 8 '15 at 2:40

This is a bit long for a comment, but I also acknowledge that only someone from TurnItIn could categorically answer this.

Since TurnItIn does not provide access to source material (other than small sections which actually match the submitted paper), I do not see how it could be a copyright issue. I get matches all the time from papers submitted to other schools, yet, TurnItIn does not allow me to see that paper.

Additionally, much of the content within TurnItIn is under copyright (blogs and others) and they do not purge it, further implying that they would not have a problem with your plan.

All that said, unless the content is quite new, or changed regularly, as soon as one student includes content, any other student including that same content will trigger a flag for you.

So, I do not believe your plan will have any problem but I am also not sure you need to worry about it unless you have a special set of texts you believe other students around the world will not have access to.

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  • Our academic misconduct policy says we need to find the original source. This means that when an assignment matches a student's paper at another university, which we cannot access, then we need to find the original source. We think this would help us get back to the original source. – StrongBad Feb 6 '15 at 13:47
  • @StrongBad Then I think it will solve your problem. – earthling Feb 6 '15 at 14:22
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    This answer is very wrong with respect to whether the proposed actions would raise any copyright issues. Providing TurnItIn with copies of any copyright-protected works for which the submitter has neither the copyright nor a permissive license is presumptively a copyright violation. There have been cases holding that submitting student works does not violate the students' copyrights, but I think the issue is still unclear when it comes to you submitting a textbook owned by someone else. Furthermore such disclaimer statements have NO VALUE in defense against copyright infringement suits. – Bill Barth Feb 6 '15 at 15:39
  • @BillBarth the disclaimer wasn't for copyright protection, but rather for professional misconduct protection (to the extent that copyright infringement is not professional misconduct, or something like that). – StrongBad Feb 6 '15 at 16:05
  • @StrongBad, such disclaimers may or may not have any value to you in front of a misconduct tribunal. I wouldn't given them much weight. – Bill Barth Feb 6 '15 at 16:29

My guesstimate is that this at least in Germany (where I some little knowledge about copyright) this would not be covered by any copyright exception.

But, why not go the official way and ask the publisher? Or ask turnitin to ask the publisher?

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Copyright refers to the right to make a copy, so your scheme violates US copyright law, and that's that as far as the ethical question is concerned. Whether the author / publisher could recover damages from you (or whoever the copier is) depends on strategic questions such as the depth of your pockets. Acting as an agent for a university, the pockets could be pretty deep. Making a profit is not part of the definition of copyright violation. It could also expose Turnitin to legal action by the copyright holder, which means they could have a cause of action against you. OTOH they may realize that it's unlikely that a publisher would actually bother.

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    Copyright is a legal condition, not an ethical one. – JeffE Feb 8 '15 at 2:40
  • It's a legal recognition of a property right, and respect / violation for rights is an ethical question. – user6726 Feb 8 '15 at 3:00
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    The boundaries of property rights are an ethical question that is independent of the law. – JeffE Feb 8 '15 at 13:47
  • @JeffE, on the contrary and as noted here, exposing a third party to risk of harm without their informed consent is generally considered unethical. If that harm is a lawsuit, then that intertwines questions of ethics and questions of law. They are not always independent. – Bill Barth Feb 8 '15 at 15:01

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