The Internet did not create the market for buying and selling term papers, but it has undoubtedly enabled it. And while states have passed laws aiming to restrict the sale of term papers, and a few colleges have sued essay providers under those laws, they've made relatively little headway in cracking down on the companies that sell term papers -- or, in turn, stemming the tide of students who plagiarize by passing them off as their own.
Wednesday, a new front was opened in the campaign. Lawyers for a graduate student named Blue Macellari filed a lawsuit in federal court in Illinois alleging that three Web sites that sell term papers made a manuscript she had written available without her permission. She is charging the owner of the sites (as well as the sites' Internet service provider) with copyright infringement, consumer fraud and invasion of privacy, among other things.
"We are pursuing a few avenues that have never been tried before," says Evan Parke, a lawyer whose firm, McDermott Will & Emery, is representing Macellari at no charge. Experts in higher education law said they were unaware of any similar cases.
According to Macellari's complaint, a friend doing a casual Google search of Macellari's name last January came across references to a paper she had written during a year abroad at the University of Cape Town in 1998, which Macellari had posted in 1999 on a personal Web site at Mount Holyoke College, where she earned her degree.
But the friend found links to the paper not on her Mount Holyoke page but on two Web sites, DoingMyHomework.com and FreeforEssays.com, that said the paper was in their databases. Macellari says she later found several hundred words of her paper on another site, FreeforTermPapers.com.
All three sites are owned and operated by R2C2, Inc., a Carbondale, Ill., company owned by Rusty Carroll. Macellari's lawsuit says that she never gave the sites permission to post the manuscript, and charges the company and Carroll with falsely claiming to own the copyright on her paper and with potentially damaging her reputation by implying that she had submitted the paper herself, a potential violation of the honor codes at Johns Hopkins and Duke Universities, where Macellari is now pursuing master's degrees in international relations and business development.
Carroll, reached at his home office in Carbondale Thursday, declined to comment for this article. "I'm in the middle of all this," he said. While Macellari's paper could be found on the company's Web sites as recently as Wednesday, they were nowhere to be found (except in a cached version) on Thursday.
John Palfrey, who teaches Internet law at Harvard University and is executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, said that if the claims in Macellari's legal complaint are accurate, "it's going to be hard for the defendants" to win the case.
But in gauging the lawsuit's potential to have a meaningful impact on the behavior of term paper companies or in cutting down on student plagiarism, Palfrey drew analogies to two other efforts to control Internet-based problems: spam e-mail and the illegal sharing of music and video files.
Record companies began making some headway on illegal file sharing when they gave up on regulatory efforts and turned to private lawsuits against individuals, he said, which suggests that the lawyers in the term paper case may be on to something. But it was only when they began filing the lawsuits en masse that they really had an impact, Palfrey noted.
And while some lawsuits have been filed, and even won, to try to stop the flow of spam, that battle is clearly being lost at the moment, as anyone with an e-mail in-box knows. "It's hard to bring enough spam lawsuits to make a big difference," Palfrey said.
So can one individual's lawsuit against providers of term papers make a difference? It's a start, Palfrey said, but "these really big distributive problems are ones that are hard to contain."