07 May 2009

Copyright on Student Course Work

A federal appeals court ruled that online plagiarism-screening site TurnItIn.com is not violating students' copyright claims by storing digital copies of their papers in repository. Read about it here.

I think this is fascinating for a number of reasons. First, this ruling effectively says that—although any work permanently affixed is considered copyrighted—students do not have the right to convey or withhold those rights. This is a contradiction of the usual interpretation of copyright in US courts, but it indicates a shift in the thinking on intellectual copyright. The issue here isn’t the re-publication of the students’ works, but rather the permanent collection of digital files without the students’ permission. (This is, in principle, the same issue at the heart of the Google settlement; the authors guild and association of publishers argued that Google didn’t have the right to create and hold copies of copyrighted works, much as libraries can’t just photocopy popular books and circulate the photocopies. You have to wonder how the Google suit would have turned out if they'd gone to court, too.)

Second, I wonder why the courts ruled this way. Are they arguing that school work is effectively a work for hire, wherein the school effectively acts as an employer who contracts created works? That’s kind of a shift in our whole notion of schools, isn’t it? But even that doesn’t make sense to me—if that were the case, then the school district would hold the copyright. But the material would still be under copyright.

And, lastly, I wonder if this suit would have been handled differently if the rights holders in this case were not students (read: youth). If this ruling is upheld, wouldn’t it logically follow that all scholarly works are fair game? Faculty, doctoral students, university presidents—is all of their creative work devoid of digital copyright protection now? Can I just start digitizing and storing anything that comes from an educational institution? That should make electronic course reserves a whole new ballgame...

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