Essay mills have long been the bane of educators at nearly all levels.
Seen as a simple, albeit expensive, way for students to plagiarize an assignment without worrying about being detected, instructors and administrators have long worked to battle against them.
But while all of this is fairly well known, Twitter user @HowellsCheryl asked a question that I hadn’t really considered before: Who owns the copyright to an essay mill paper?
While I thought the answer would be straightforward, it actually ended up being much more complicated than I had considered.
The Parties Involved
One of the reasons that the answer isn’t straightforward is because, when it comes to the copyright of an essay mill paper, there are three different parties to ponder.
- The Author: The author is the person who actually writes the essay itself. Most essay mill sites contract with third party authors, often from all over the world. The authors are not usually full employees of their mill, meaning that the copyright doesn’t automatically transfer. However, depending on the mill’s contract it could be a work for hire and transfer initial ownership to the essay mill.
- The Essay Mill: The essay mill serves as the middleman in this transaction. Accepting the order from the customer and sending to an author. The essay mill’s arrangement with the author is unknown to the customer and varies from site to site. Also, the interaction between the customer and the author varies from site to site. Some put them in direct contact while others remain an intermediary through the process.
- The Customer: The customer pays the essay mill for the paper and receives the product. Their job in this, other than paying for the essay, is to provide the details of what the paper should include and, in some cases, interact with the author to provide guidance and request revisions.
When it comes to the copyright of an essay mill paper, it’s one of these three that will probably have it. However, which one is difficult to say, even when there is an attempt to make it clear who owns it.
The reason is because so much of the chain of custody is hidden from public eye.
Following the Chain
Theoretically, any one of the three can wind up holding the copyright. It’s simply a matter if there was one, two or zero copyright transfers.
Since the author isn’t likely an employee, the copyright does not automatically transfer to the essay mill (or to the customer). The essay mill could fix that by simply writing a copyright transfer into their contract with the author, something they likely do, but that may not always happen.
The reason is simply because many essay mill sites do not have proper terms of service for their customers, making it likely they don’t have a proper contract for their authors either.
Still, if the essay mill does secure the copyright to the paper, they then have the option to transfer it again to the customer.
However, in a survey of one dozen essay mill sites, that seems to be very rare. Only one of the sites promised to transfer the copyright in the essay to the customer. Ten others made no mention of a copyright transfer in their terms (meaning no transfer would take place) and the final one explicitly stated that the copyright would remain with the essay mill.
But even in the rare cases where the essay mill does promise copyright ownership to the customer, it may not be meaningful. If the essay mill didn’t secure the copyright from the author, they may not legally have the copyright to transfer.
In short, the question of who holds the copyright in an essay mill paper is a question of when the chain of copyright ownership is broken. If the copyright wasn’t transferred from author to company, it can’t be transferred from company to customer.
Still, the most common and likely answer is still going to be the essay mill itself with the author (perhaps unwittingly) holding the rights if their contract with the company didn’t involve a copyright transfer. The customer, in rare cases, may wind up with the right but that assumes that both the essay mill and the author transferred it first.
But all of this is fairly moot. After all, the licenses and agreements make it so that nothing illegal is going on. Which party holds the rights is an academic exercise so long as no one is violating copyright law.
Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case.
The Licensing Problem
While the copyright chain is hopelessly muddled, the permissions chain is not. The copyright in the work only becomes relevant when deciding who has the right to take action when something is done using the work without permission.
For example, if the purchaser chooses to publish the essay or resell it, copyright would answer the question of who, if anyone, could file a lawsuit.
But permission is a different matter. Any contract between the author and the essay mill would almost certainly give the essay mill a license to use and resell the work. Even if there is no written contract, there would almost certainly an implied license to use the work in the manner intended.
The problem, however, is with the license granted to the customer.
Most essay mill sites, in an effort to feign legitimacy, tell their customers that you are not intended to turn their essays in as yours. Instead, that they are to be examples or guides on how to write your own essay. This language is often baked into the terms of service.
All products and/or papers written by SITENAME are not to be given, sold, or disclosed by the consumer or executor to any other person or party. This information is to be exclusively and strictly confidential.
You agree not to distribute, publish, transmit, modify, display or create derivative works from, or exploit the Products and/or contents of this Site, without our prior written consent.
While this is very much a “wink and a nod” situation and it’s unlikely an essay mill would sue their customer for using the essay in the most commonly used manner, it still is theoretically possible.
A more likely scenario is an essay mill going to battle with a customer that is reselling the essay or publishing it online. These actions not only create competition for the essay mill, but put its operation in jeopardy.
In our survey of essay mill sites, nearly all had strict rules about reselling the paper or posting it publicly online or reselling it.
In short, while the essay mill almost certainly has a license to resell the paper to the customer, the customer might not have a license to use it in the manner they intend, especially if that involves publishing it online.
However, it may even technically be against the license to submit the paper as your own to an instructor, the very use most buy essay mill papers for.
Determining who owns the copyright of an essay mill paper is a nearly impossible task to do broadly. There are hundreds of essay mill sites and each have a different contract with their authors and their customers. Even when the essay mill attempts to provide clarity, it’s difficult to have much faith in it because the chain of transfer may not be complete.
From a more practical standpoint, the licensing, whether implied or contractual, makes it so that the essay mill isn’t committing copyright infringement but, depending on the terms of service, the customer might, even if they are using the paper in the most common manner.
While it’s unlikely that an essay mlll would ever sue a customer for submitting the work as their own, it’s often a theoretical possibility.
When essay mills feign legitimacy by setting rules on how their papers can be used, customers can get in trouble if the mills decide to state enforcing those rules.
However, I seriously doubt that day is ever coming.