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HEARD ON THE BEAT

Download a Paper, Go to Jail?

September 01, 1997|GREG MILLER

As students traipse back to class this fall, more of them than ever will be armed with Internet accounts giving them access to perhaps the greatest store of knowledge in the world . . . and all the term papers they can download.

Web sites with addresses such as http://www.cheater.com and http://www.schoolsucks.com have proliferated in recent years, offering virtual warehouses of term papers on everything from "Colorado Conifers" to "The Social Classes of Mid-Victorian England."

Despite claims by their creators that the sites are harmless online libraries, government and academic officials say the sites promote plagiarism, and some authorities are starting to fight back.

The state of Texas, for example, recently passed a law, effective today, that targets anyone who "prepares, sells, offers or advertises for sale or delivers" academic material for cheating.

The new law has galvanized some local academics, including an administrator at a Texas community college who recently sent an e-mail to dozens of sites warning them that selling term papers to students is a crime.

California has a similar anti-plagiarism law, although it has been on the books since the late 1970s and wasn't prompted by abuses over the Internet.

Creators of the sites aren't exactly trembling over the sudden attention from lawmakers.

"It's silly," said Steve Roberts, who works for a computer-networking company in Virginia and whose teenage son runs the cheater.com site. "Beyond that, it's a violation of First Amendment rights. Here we allow pornography on the Net and we're concerned about research material? Ridiculous."

But if the site's aims are so noble, why call it cheater.com?

"It's just a catchy name," Roberts said.

The potential impact of the Texas law or any other remains murky. As usual with the Internet, there are questions about jurisdiction. But the sites also try to protect themselves by, among other things, requiring users to check boxes stating they won't represent downloaded work as their own.

Teel Bivins, a Republican state senator from Amarillo who wrote the Texas law, acknowledged that enforcement could be tough: "I'm the first to admit that, and it's just a misdemeanor."

Most sites get papers by soliciting them over the Net from students. Kenny Sahr, creator of the schoolsucks.com site, said his site has thousands of papers in stock and gets 100 more every week. He said his site warns students that plagiarism is wrong, and points out that the term papers come with no quality guarantees and can be viewed just as easily by suspicious educators.

The papers at the site are free, but Sahr said he makes money selling advertisements to music stores and others wishing to reach a young audience.

Far from being annoyed by complaints, Sahr said the controversy, and surrounding media attention, have been good for business.

"We started a year ago with one paper and a lot of angry professors," Sahr said. "They're the ones who have been spreading the word. If they do a good enough job, I could go to Europe next summer."

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