An important question that has arisen under US intellectual property law and regulations is the possible legal and ethical issues higher education institutions may face when instituting anti-plagiarism software. Through an analysis of the history of intellectual property and copyright law, this paper addresses the ethical debates around university utilization of such software. The paper then raises and evaluates alternative approaches. After thorough consideration of the pros and cons of anti-plagiarism software, the paper concludes that such software violates certain intellectual property rights, and its use breaks the trust between universities and their students.

Over the past ten years, there has been a push in higher education to adopt and institutionalize anti-plagiarism software such as TurnItIn to monitor and catch plagiarized work from students. While from a professorial and institutional side, this type of software initially sounds like it would make work easier for instructors and catch plagiarism cases that would otherwise go undetected, this software comes with the dangerous trade-off of mining and storing student papers in large databases in order to compare future student papers against each other for plagiarism detection. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, a number of librarians and professors boycotted the employment of TurnItIn as a plagiarism detection tool, citing its violation of student intellectual property rules. In particular, the inability of students to decline the mining of their papers in large databases was cited as the primary violation of their intellectual property rights as people and students. This issue was brought to court in A.V. et al. v. iParadigms LLC where the courts upheld utilizing student papers in this way as a transformative usage.1 This complex issue and multifaceted debate continues today on college campuses with the struggle to catch the ever-evolving and technology-infused plagiarism attempts of students. The debate over the use of this software at the administration level and the assumptions made therein also highlights the lack of education and training that college students possess in regards to their digital competency skills around intellectual property and copyright. Given the failure to train students in digital competency skills, students are not equipped to understand the issues at play in utilizing the tool, adding another level to the debate around the ethical conversations, and the legality of utilizing anti-plagiarism software. This paper provides a brief overview of the motivation to use anti-plagiarism software and an explanation of intellectual property as it pertains to college students. Then the paper discusses the A.V. et al. v. iParadigms LLC court case and the resulting ethical issues in the use of the anti-plagiarism tool in the classroom. Finally, this paper provides solutions for combating ethical issues in the classroom and highlights the need to train students in digital competency skills.

Motivation to Utilize Anti-plagiarism Software

Anti-plagiarism software is growing in popularity and has increased usage and employment on college campuses. In many cases, these tools and software (TurnItIn in particular) are marketed as a learning tool for students to assist them in learning how to paraphrase correctly and cite in the appropriate manner with the added benefit of quickly identifying plagiarism attempts. However, the implementation on many campuses does not always reflect this educational-based marketing campaign and is used simply as a detection tool for students that either intentionally or (in many cases) unintentionally plagiarize, and as a tool to relieve pressure on faculty to catch it, especially in classes with large numbers of students. TurnItIn has become the tool of choice due to the effectiveness of its search algorithm and its large database of student papers. These two elements make it an incredibly effective tool for determining plagiarism, particularly student to student sharing of papers and ideas.2

The “need” for anti-plagiarism software on campuses as described by faculty often arises out of large class sizes, the utilization of this software at previous institutions, or a desire to educate students on plagiarism in their classrooms. In a survey study on faculty perceptions and integration of plagiarism education into their courses, Russell Michalak, Monica Rysavy, Kevin Hunt, Bernice Smith, and Joel Worden found that, regardless of discipline or level of class, faculty were evenly split concerning the integration of plagiarism education within the classroom.3 Many professors mentioned that while they briefly discuss plagiarism in their courses, plagiarism and the importance of academic integrity was rarely an important topic within the classroom. Compounding the problem of it often going undiscussed is that faculty were also unlikely to include campus experts, namely librarians, to discuss how to avoid plagiarism and teach the value of academic integrity to students.4

Additionally, the rise in large class sizes on college campuses can make monitoring for plagiarism in student work virtually impossible for many faculty members. With 100 or more students in a large seminar class, the ability of a faculty member (even with the help of Teacher Assistants) to know individual student work and conduct Google searches of suspicious passages is practically impossible. (For the remainder of this paper, student work refers to anything that is assigned and completed for a course grade.) Although Cynthia Townley and Mitch Parsell argue that the greatest weapon against plagiarism in the college campus environment is building trust between faculty members and students, given the scope of a large class, building trust can be incredibly difficult if not impossible. Townely and Parsell argue that: “It is undeniable that some students will be tempted by plagiarism and that in some situations it is beyond the control of the individual instructor to set up and maintain an environment of trust and respect. When an instructor is responsible for 100-plus students, developing a relationship with each whereby virtue can be cultivated is impossible.”5 In large classroom environments, the “need” for anti-plagiarism tools may be arguably unavoidable for some instructors to try to maintain academic integrity within their courses and assignments. This around plagiarism attempts by students and the influx of large classes provides for motivation and desire for easy-to-use plagiarism detection software like TurnItIn. Although there may be motivation, and indeed an understandable argument, for a college or university to utilize this software, the concerns on whether its employment is ethical or violates intellectual property rights remains.

Intellectual Property Policy History

Intellectual property laws in the United States are ill-defined due to their inexplicit nature in US Constitutional law. According to Cornell Law School, intellectual property laws are made up of several sections within the Constitution and fall into four areas: patent, trademark, trade secret laws, and copyright.6 All four of these areas of intellectual property are found within US Constitution, Article I, Section 8 which states: “The Congress shall have power. . . . To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries. . . .”7 This section of the Constitution sets the framework for interpreting all of the intellectual property law in America.

The first area of intellectual property, patent law, is defined as the exclusive rights of the inventor to do whatever they desire with their invention. The intention of this law is to promote new discoveries and finds its justification firmly in the US Constitution Section 8, Clause 8 as quoted earlier.8 The second type of intellectual property law, trademark law, protects brand names, logos, slogans, and other products distinct to a company or person. There are different degrees of protection given to trademarks than to other aspects of intellectual property law. The third type is trade secrets, which are also protected under intellectual property law in the United States and protect sensitive business information. This portion of intellectual property law is important to protect against inappropriate advantages of companies over others.9 The final aspect of intellectual property law is copyright law and is the portion of intellectual property law that most relates to college student work and plagiarism software.

Copyright law is complex and is defined as the: “exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, license, and to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work.”10 Copyright law in the United States is elaborated upon in the US Copyright Act established in 1923 and protects authors and creators from having others plagiarize their work. Although copyrighted works are protected under the US Copyright Act, the “fair use” clause found in Section 107 of the US Copyright Act, establishes a precedent for legally using copyrighted materials. The fair use law reads that:

The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use, the factors to be considered shall include the following:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes.

  2. The nature of the copyrighted work.

  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole.

  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.11

Essentially, in order to determine if a copyrighted work can be used for a given purpose, these four elements: purpose of the use, nature of the work, amount and substantiality, and effect on the market must all be weighed in favor of fair use law. In higher education, fair use is utilized in classrooms to teach course content and in the proper citation and utilization of copyrighted works to further scholarship as long as it is cited and, when appropriate, quoted to prevent plagiarism attempts and give proper credit. However, although fair use law is intended to promote the use of copyrighted works to ideally promote scholarship and creative endeavors, fair use law has also been used as a legal justification for the archiving of student works in the court case A.V. et al. v. iParadigms LLC.

Intellectual Property Rights Issue for College Student Work

Regarding intellectual property rights and college students, the debate is centered around whether the use of technologies such as TurnItIn is violating the intellectual property rights of these students. This debate came to a head in 2009 in the court case A.V. et al. v. iParadigms LLC (otherwise known as Turnitin). The defendant argued that iParadigms was violating student intellectual property and privacy rights by creating a database of student works and, ultimately, monetizing student works without their permission. Each plaintiff in the case, the students at a Virginia High School, submitted their written works and agreed to the online registration agreement. However, each had written across their paper that they did not want their works to be archived in any way, which iParadigms continued to archive.12 Citing a violation of fair use law, the courts weighed the use of the papers against the four fair use factors. In each instance of fair use law they concluded on the following:

  1. Purpose and Character of Use—Citing Perfect 10, Inc. v. Google, Inc. 487 F.3d 701, the courts found that iParadigms' use of the students' papers was a “highly transformative use, because the papers are used for an entirely different purpose, namely to prevent plagiarism and protect students written works from plagiarism. . . .”13

  2. Nature—This factor is of lesser importance because iParadigms make no creative aspect of the students’ works. Ultimately this factor holds equal weight on both sides.

  3. Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used—Although 100% of the papers were archived, this does not preclude fair use. Citing Perfect 10 again, the court determined that since the use is highly transformative and highly beneficial to the public, this factor does not favor either party.

  4. Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market—iParadigms' use of the students’ papers was not a threat to their potential market value.

In the weighing of these four fair use elements, the court ultimately ruled that anti-plagiarism software that kept a database of copyrighted student work was not in violation of intellectual property law and was, indeed, the fair use of student work. In particular, the online registration agreement, clicking “I agree” was a binding agreement and precluded the students’ copyright infringement suit. The court considered fair use law as its basis and ultimately concluded that:

. . . the use [of student work] by the defendant was highly transformative, because the papers are used for an entirely different purpose, namely to prevent plagiarism and protect the students’ written works from plagiarism, whereas the original purpose of the students’ works was education and creative expression. “Defendant does this by archiving the students’ works as digital code and makes no use of any work’s particular expressive or creative content beyond the limited use of comparison with other works.”14

The transformative nature of archiving student papers that TurnItIn utilizes was the rationale that the courts gave for ultimately declaring this practice legal. Additionally, because of the consent that students gave upon the submission of their paper, the “. . . students had entered into an enforceable contract with iParadigms when they ‘clicked “I agree” to acknowledge their acceptance of the terms of the Clickwrap Agreement.'”15 Although the courts may have upheld the technical legality of the situation, the ethical aspect of archiving complete student works should also be considered, as should the student’s understanding of the “contract” they entered into, often a requirement for the student to be able to submit the paper for a course.

Embedded within this complex issue is a variety of values and ethical issues that need to be considered to fully understand this information policy problem. In its foreground, this is an ethical policy issue around college student rights and the voice of college students to advocate for their intellectual property rights. With the utilization of a software like TurnItIn on campuses, students may not be aware of the debates and legal issues happening around their papers and intellectual property or they may not simply understand why they should care about them in the first place. According to Brinkman, students have three distinct rights related to their work for an institution. They are as follows:

  1. Students have the right to expect that their submitted schoolwork will be treated as ‘‘personal’’ information. This means that the educational institution will take the same care in protecting it as it would in protecting the student’s social security number or grades.

  2. Educators have a duty to make sure that students are fully informed about the potential privacy implications of using a plagiarism detection service. Note that, though phrased as a duty for the educator, this can be viewed as a claim right for the students.

  3. Students have the right to expect that work that is ‘‘risky’’ or ‘‘controversial’’ in nature will not be archived without some form of consent. Simply informing the student, as required in the previous rule, is not enough if the required work may expose the student to adverse effects.16

These rights are often implicit or even explicit on campuses when students begin their educational journeys at colleges. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects students from having their grades exposed to the public without their consent and implies that instructors will protect the coursework itself as well to promote deep intellectual discussions within the classroom. Brinkman discusses this point further and wraps up his argument by stating that:

It is not that TurnItIn violates FERPA, since it is quite legal to maintain such records, provided that the other provisions of FERPA are obeyed. Instead, this argument shows that SCOTUS [the supreme court of the united states] considers submitted student work to be “personal data,” contrary to TurnItIn.com’s claims. One must conclude that, under US law, students have the right to expect that their submissions will be treated with the same respect as all other “personal” information.17

However, plagiarism software seems to be an exception to this rule since TurnItIn results in the archiving of student work in a semiprivate database owned by a third-party rather than the instructor or institution the student has placed trust in for their educational journey.

Rationale against Anti-plagiarism Software

As instructors, and as an institution employing anti-plagiarism software, the first question that should be asked is “Do students really understand what they are agreeing to by clicking ‘I agree’.” The pressure that students experience to click “I agree” without the knowledge of a buyout or, worse, what company is archiving their work in large database systems creates a lack of trust and understanding between faculty, institutions, and students.18 In most cases, students feel the pressure to turn in their assignments for their grades as quickly as possible and do not want to jeopardize their grades or future prospects by refusing to turn in their academic work into a system like TurnItIn.19 Indeed, in many situations, a student may feel that requesting to turn the paper in through another medium may raise suspicion that they are avoiding TurnItIn because they did plagiarize, not because they want to protect the right to their own work. This pressure results in a hostage contract situation where the students lack the power and, arguably, understanding of the contract they are agreeing to. Additionally, students are not modeled academic integrity and valuing others' work in the classroom or in the world. For many students, the college classroom is the first time these expectations and values are presented to them.20 Finally, definitions of plagiarism vary within the literature and can lead to confusion among students—particularly without education around avoiding plagiarism and valuing attribution.

Clicking “I Agree”

It is important that students understand the potential intellectual property that they are innately giving up in submitting their papers through an anti-plagiarism software like TurnItIn. Students rarely understand the ramifications of archived work and the potential backlash they could endure if their undergraduate work were to become public. Ideas change over time and the risk taken when producing a controversial paper in an undergraduate class may not be recognized by the student at the time of creation but in the future, could cause professional or other problems for these current students. Brinkman, utilizing an example of Hillary Clinton’s undergraduate thesis, argues that:

When she wrote her thesis, Secretary Clinton was in her early 20s. By the time she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination 38 years had passed. Secretary Clinton likely regretted writing the paper, because it caused some members of the public to associate her with radical Marxism. Knowing what she knows now, she might have chosen a different topic for her thesis. It is also quite likely that her ideas, as expressed in the thesis, are no longer the ideas that she holds today. Permanent archives of student writing make it more difficult for individuals to grow and change, and to leave their young and immature selves in the past. This example leads to the conclusion that there are times when a student may regret that her work has been permanently archived, as happens automatically and inescapably with plagiarism detection systems like TurnItIn.com. What must educators do to try to mitigate or prevent this from harming students? Should all use of plagiarism detection systems be prohibited due to this risk?21

This example shows the need to educate students on evaluating their risks and encouraging them to think into the future about what can happen when papers, academic work, or other public presences are freely available for the outside world to interact with. Although, in theory, TurnItIn protects against the release of student work to the public, nevertheless these papers are being archived and utilized in their extensive database. Indeed, althoughTurnItIn may claim that these papers will never be released, it is still the case that the students no longer have power and control over their own works once they are submitted to the tool—rather TurnItIn and iParadigms have that control. Although this may not initially seem like an issue, Clinton’s case mentioned in Brinkman’s example showcases how a seemingly innocent senior thesis paper may have large ramifications in the future for students, especially in our digital age.

Modeling Academic Integrity

Another important aspect to consider when discussing intellectual property rights issues for students is whether they understand academic integrity in order to model it well in their own papers. Academic integrity is rarely modeled well for students in the classroom by their instructors nor is it modeled for students in other places in their lives. Brinkman elaborates on this topic, explaining that students are not modeled proper utilization of copyrighted materials within the classroom setting. “. . . One should not be surprised if students do not value attribution because educators do not model it well themselves.”22 Townley and Parsell echo this claim stating that “Lectures are by far the most common academic environment experienced by students, but instructors rarely present a robust model of academic attribution in teaching.”23 If attribution and citation are not modeled for students in the classroom, trust is not offered, and, as discussed earlier, plagiarism experts are not invited to the course, and discussions on plagiarism are a rarity, then the expectations on students to agree to the utilization of anti-plagiarism software is simply unethical and a complete violation of student intellectual property rights. Furthermore, academic integrity is not modeled well in the outside world either. With information readily available and transferrable on the Internet, copyrighted materials are often unregulated and passed along without regard to the original owner’s rights. Townley and Parsell write:

In the everyday world students are not routinely exposed to academic norms of attribution. Instead, they constantly see others using the Internet to copy the intellectual property of others. Music and videos are downloaded and copied to CD without either thought of wrongdoing or fear of retribution. Images, cartoon characters and logos are dropped to tee-shirt designs and printed with no compensation to the owners of the copyrights.24

Without attribution and respect for copyright law modeled in the real world, the students cannot be expected to readily understand the need for attribution or the proper way to give credit without being taught how to properly do so in the classroom setting.

Definitions of Plagiarism

In addition to the issue of whether students understand what they are doing when clicking “I agree,” and modeling academic integrity, the policies, and definitions around plagiarism vary greatly across higher education institutions. For instance, the ability to plagiarize one’s own published or unpublished work is debated and is defined as plagiarism only on some campuses. According to Michalak et al., “To this day, there continues to be an inconsistent definition of plagiarism within the Western academy. . . . The difficulty in defining plagiarism could be attributed to the multiple ways that plagiarism has been categorized in the literature.”25 This categorization of plagiarism in the literature, as well as faculty perceptions of plagiarism, vary greatly between faculty members and institutions. Without a distinct definition provided to students, requiring them to fully understand their intellectual property rights and understand copyright law in regards to attribution in their papers, students cannot be expected to follow proper citation conventions within the classroom setting.

Valuing the Copyright of Students and Copyright Holders

The fact in and of itself that campuses and faculty alike feel the need for this type of software shows the value of protecting author copyrights and the value of academic integrity. The issue of plagiarism and the intellectual property rights of others is heavily embedded within this discussion. The use of a tool like TurnItIn ensures that the work being done for course work and degrees is done without violating others' rights and violating student code of conduct policies on campuses that regulate plagiarism attempts. However, although this regulation and promotion of protecting others rights is admirable, this decision also results in valuing others' rights above the rights of students. Anti-plagiarism software promotes a “Don’t get caught” attitude among students and faculty as a result of intense policymaking on the institution’s behalf to catch all plagiarism attempts through technology. Indeed, this often places not plagiarizing as the pinnacle of academic work rather than academic exploration and intellectual exploration and excellence.

Ultimately, this attitude and approach trade the intellectual values and rights of students for the intellectual rights of published authors. This approach shows the lack of value in education and information centers like libraries on campuses across the nation. By transforming the approach of institutions to educating students on (1) what plagiarism is and why it is important to know, (2) modeling academic integrity on campuses, (3) teaching and valuing information literacy, and (4) teaching and valuing digital competency skills, campuses can begin to build trust in their student body and utilize large company software to detect plagiarism on a minimal to a nonexistent basis.

The Case for Education

Faculty viewpoints on plagiarism and ethics aside, students must be taught and have an understanding of the contracts that they are agreeing to and their intellectual property rights provided to them as students and people in the United States. Brinkman asserts that it is an ethical and legal obligation on the behalf of the college or institution employing a tool like Turnitin or other plagiarism software to educate their students on their rights—the reality is this education and understanding does not always happen.26 Librarians, the information and plagiarism experts on campus, are rarely invited into the classroom to discuss academic integrity issues and the severity of plagiarism attempts.27 As a result, these anti-plagiarism tools are simply used on campuses to “catch students in the act” rather than teaching important academic writing and research skills imperative for their future careers outside the college. Roll writes in Inside Higher Ed. about an interview with faculty members that wrote an article about the dangers of TurnItIn: “Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Morris and Stommel said they didn’t write the post with the hopes of shutting down Turnitin, but rather rethinking on a pedagogical level how students are taught about plagiarism, and what should be emphasized when teaching students how to write.”28 Faculty, institutions, and librarians, have the opportunity to promote educating students in these information literacy and digital competency skills to understand the value of respecting others academic works, the appropriate ways to utilize that work for the spreading of knowledge, and the protecting against plagiarism.


The issues surrounding intellectual property laws and anti-plagiarism software with college students is a complex and important topic. The laws and court cases surrounding the legality of anti-plagiarism software have thus far upheld the ability of businesses like Turnitin to archive and utilize student papers in their entirety under the protection of fair use. While the legality of this system has been determined by the courts, the ethical debates and, most importantly, the understanding on the students’ part is important to consider. Anti-plagiarism software is marketed as a teaching tool for faculty and students to utilize around teaching and learning about plagiarism in academic writing. However, the reality is that these tools are employed primarily as a scare and catch technique without the integration of librarians or modules around academic integrity. In order to begin to correct and mitigate this policy issue on campuses and with anti-plagiarism software like TurnItIn, educating students in and outside the classroom is an important and necessary first step. Educating students around their intellectual property rights, how to evaluate their risk around what content is made available on the Internet, modeling and valuing academic integrity on college campuses, and having clear definitions of plagiarism is the start to begin to demystify policy issues around intellectual property and plagiarism attempts.



A.V. et al. v. iParadigms LLC | Loeb & Loeb LLP.




Michalak et al.


Ibid., 759.


Townley and Parsell, 276.


LII / Legal Information Institute.


US Const., art 1. sec 8.


LII/Legal Information Institute; Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center.


Overview of Intellectual Property Laws.


Crews, 176; “US Copyright Act”.


US Copyright Act, sec. 107.


A.V. et al. v. iParadigms LLC | Loeb & Loeb LLP.






Mawdsley and Cumming, 217.


Brinkman, 1258.


Ibid, 1259–60.




Townley and Parsell, 275.




Brinkman, 1263.




Townley and Parsell, 274.


Ibid., 275.


Michalak et al., 749–50.




Townley and Parsell.


Roll, 11.


A.V. et al. v. iParadigms LLC | Loeb & Loeb LLP
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