Could a young scientist really be facing serious jail time for sharing a single article with his colleagues?
If you’ve been following the case of Diego Gomez, you’ll know the answer is much closer to yes than you might otherwise have imagined. And if Gomez, whose multiyear legal battle is likely to reach a head later this month with a verdict expected on May 24, does land behind bars, the chilling effect on researchers will be of Ice Age proportions.
In 2014, Gomez, a wildlife management researcher, ran afoul of US copyright law in what can only be described as the most incidental of ways. Then a master’s student at the University of Quindío in Colombia, Gomez found a thesis in a library that he liked and decided to forward the article to colleagues by sharing it on the website Scribd. That move proved unfortunate. The author of the article claimed that by sharing the paper, Gomez had deprived him of “economic and related rights.”
That assertion is, of course, absurd. The outraged scientist sued under a law governing copyright issues that Colombia created to establish better trade relations with the United States, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has been advocating on behalf of Gomez. The penalty for the alleged crime: a prison term of as many as eight years. Given that no one was likely to have ever seen the thesis, sitting in a library, and that therefore no one was ever likely to have cited it, it seems like a thank-you note would have been more appropriate than a summons or a cell block.
The case isn’t the only example of absurd copyright law being propagated by the United States. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act has become a blunt tool that unscrupulous people use to demand the removal of material that’s unflattering to them — including from our site, Retraction Watch.
Gomez, now 29, has maintained that he acted in “good faith, in gratitude for all the support I had received from other researchers in Colombia and other countries, and voluntarily for academic purposes and non-profit,” and that he “never imagined that this activity could be considered a crime.”
His plight has become a cause célèbre in certain circles. Gomez has received expressions of support from a variety of groups devoted to open access information, among them Creative Commons and the Fundación Karisma, along with the EFF. “We need major reform of our laws, both internationally and domestically, to make open access the norm and ensure that sharing, promoting scientific progress, and exercising creative expression are not crimes,” says the EFF.
If anything good might come of this case — and we hope a verdict of “not guilty” is one result — it could be to shine a light on the growing sense that rigid paywalls are not good for science. And they may not even be good for publishers’ bottom lines, since all they do is prompt researchers to illegally share copyrighted papers.
But there are encouraging signs that publishers are recognizing this problem and taking steps to address it. As Nature put it this week, “Instead of demanding that scientists or network operators take their papers down, some publishers are clubbing together to create systems for legal sharing of articles — called fair sharing — which could also help them to track the extent to which scientists share paywalled articles online.”
For instance, one industry trade group, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers, created the “How Can I Share It” site to advise scientists on sharing within the existing guidelines. Others are acting to not only make the rules more transparent but to change them entirely. Publisher Springer Nature has built “SharedIt,” which allows readers on a number of media websites to view read-only versions of their articles without a paywall.
At the same time, some publishers — notably Elsevier, who is suing a paper-sharing site called SciHub — are doubling down on the fight against exceptions to paywalls.
Of course, if publishers — and irate temper-tantrum-throwing scientists in Colombia — insist on legal action and scare tactics, they will slowly but surely find themselves obsolete, thanks to efforts such as Unpaywall, which allows anyone to read millions of author-uploaded papers for free — and legally. The revolution will not be copyrighted.
Update, 5/25/17: In a hearing on May 24, Gomez was acquitted of the charges — though prosecutors could still appeal the decision.