Monday 29 September 2014

Eight Years in Prison for Publishing Another's Scientific Research?

On August 7, 2014, Newsweek published an article by Joe Bloc about the case of Diego Gomez who was a student at a university in Columbia.  Apparently, Mr. Gomez published a thesis concerning amphibians online at Scribd that was written by professor at a different university in Columbia.  The professor (not the university or publisher) promptly sued under Columbian law for a criminal violation of copyright law--not a civil violation.  The author of the Newsweek article quotes an expert from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who states that the Columbian law concerning criminal copyright infringement was a "direct result" from compliance with a U.S./Columbia free trade agreement.  The Columbian law apparently does not provide a robust fair use exemption, particularly one for academic usage.  The article frames the issue as one wherein the U.S. is using the power of its market to push for higher copyright standards in other countries at the behest of the powerful content industry in the U.S.  No doubt this is likely true.  Moreover, the article points to how the U.S. has the intent and has specifically directed resources toward ensuring government funded academic research is made available to the public in the U.S.  While this is true, we know it is not the complete truth.  Universities have been pushed to privatization for some time and markets have moved into The Republic of Science.  Indeed, universities in the U.S. have been focused on solving industry problems for some time.  Additionally, the Bayh-Dole Act was the icing on the cake that ensures that the direction of the U.S. research enterprise would move closer to privatization.  Furthermore, the institutions that have grown up around the expectations that now exist around the Bayh-Dole Act as well as conditions, such as lower effective government funding for public research, make it clear that the situation will not change.  Even tenure standards are being modified to ensure patenting activity as well as commercialization practices by academics.  Some may laud these continuing developments and surely the public may benefit from some of these innovations.  And, many work to push back, for example, by having universities voluntarily agree to license their technology to citizens in under-resourced countries; however, what has been lost?  Some times those things that are difficult to measure--to quantify--are the ones that provide the greatest benefit.  We shouldn't be lulled to sleep by the seeming objectivity of numbers that may disguise changing culture and attitudes that preserve core values and the true benefit of an enterprise. 

The primary method of knowledge (technology) transfer has been through students.  This case is about a student who tried to make helpful information in his field available to more people studying in the same field.  Now he could go to jail because of a suit by an academic.  The solution here is probably a change in the law, but a realistic and complete solution should also include a greater awareness of what is happening in academia (apparently throughout the world), so that we can all make better choices. 

 The EFF and others are sponsoring a petition to support Diego:

Academic research would be free to access and available under an open license that would legally enable the kind of sharing that is so crucial for enabling scientific progress.

When research is shared freely and openly we all benefit. Sign below to express your support for open access as the default for scientific and scholarly publishing, so researchers like Diego don’t risk severe penalties for helping colleagues access the research they need.

This is a joint effort between EFF, Creative Commons, Fundación Karisma, the Internet Archive, Public Knowledge, Open Access Button, and the Right to Research Coalition. 

You can sign the petition, here.

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