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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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In a table-turning episode in the digital copyright wars, four teenagers are suing a business for allegedly trampling on their copyrights. Their product: homework.

The saga began last year when McLean High School in Virginia adopted a widely used antiplagiarism service called Turnitin. Under the system, students electronically submit essays to be stored and compared against millions of others in a massive database. Teachers can see if students are lifting work – a valuable tool given that research has found that 40 percent of undergraduate students admit to copying and pasting passages from websites.

But the setup rankled some students, who argued they shouldn't have to surrender their personal writing and persuasive essays – along with their names and e-mail addresses – to a computer bank in California.

"The suit is not about plagiarism; it's about the school forcing the students to turn their work over to a for-profit company," says Kevin Wade Sr., the father of a plaintiff. His son, a freshman in high school, whom Mr. Wade describes as a good student, "felt it was a privacy issue, and also [creates] an assumption of guilt."

Turnitin's creator, however, insists the gathered material goes no further than teachers and students, and is kept for the beneficial – and legal – purposes of stopping the scourge of plagiarism.

"This is really a social good to make sure that students who are not doing their own work are not rewarded for that," says John Barrie, president of the Oakland-based iParadigms, the company behind Turnitin.

Top copyright lawyers say both sides have compelling arguments. The Turnitin case highlights the mounting tensions between the social utility and economic value of searchable databases, and the ire they provoke over issues of privacy and profiting from another's work.

"There are a lot of businesses that depend on making [digital] copies in order to index, or make things searchable, or create filters, or [perform] matching. All of these kinds of things today are valuable and in high demand," says Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "You'll see a lot more cases involving indexing copy."

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