I refuse to require students to use TurnitIn.
I first encountered the service as a graduate student in a master’s degree program at a public university. During one of my courses, the professor “required” students to submit their papers to the company as a prerequisite to obtaining a grade. Like other students, I clicked the Turnitin link embedded within the learning management system; unlike other students, however, I actually read, in full, the company’s Usage Policy. (Blame that on my legal background.) I wasn’t thrilled with various terms and conditions of the Usage Policy, which included, for example:
- an indemnification clause that could require a student, at his or her sole cost and expense, to actually defend the large company against any claim arising out of the student’s use of its site;
- an arbitration clause that prevents a student from seeking redress in an actual court of law, but instead requires the student to arbitrate a dispute in California; and
- a broad limitation of liability clause that offers a student practically no recourse for damages the student might sustain as a result of Turnitin’s acts or omissions, even if the company had been previously advised of the possibility of damages.
Once I finished reading the Usage Policy, I promptly clicked the “Don’t Agree” button and subsequently informed the professor that because I was unwilling to accept Turnitin’s Usage Policy, I would not be submitting my paper to the service. He didn’t quibble with my refusal.
Yet, the company’s Usage Policy isn’t the main reason I refuse to require my students to use the service. After all, I’ve entered into similarly worded usage policies with other private companies and organizations.
But here’s the difference: those private companies and organizations don’t utilize my private, original works to generate profits.
According to its own website, Turnitin recently collected over 500 million submissions (http://turnitin.com/en_us/about-us/our-company). “Digital fingerprint” representations of these student papers are archived so that they can be compared against future submissions — without paying students any royalties for the use of their original works. In other words, Turnitin’s business model generates profits from the labor of students, who do not receive any compensation for the company’s use of their private works, the sheer number of which is then used by TurnitIn as a marketing strategy to attract more business — and profit.
Turnitin often flaunts a court decision holding that its use of student works falls within the “Fair Use” exception to copyright law. Fair (or unfair?) enough.
But there is one thing that Turnitin can’t do: force a student to consent to its Usage Policy.
Under basic contract law, acceptance cannot be the product of force, coercion, or duress; indeed, these concepts protect all students, regardless of whether they attend public or private educational institutions. For as powerful as Turnitin is, two words can be used to prevent the company from generating profits without paying royalties to students: “Don’t Agree.”