Threat of Imprisonment for Colombian Scientist Demonstrates the Far-Reaching Implications of Copyright Policy
In 2011, Colombian graduate student Diego Gómez did something that hundreds of people do every day: he shared another student’s Master’s thesis with colleagues over the Internet. He didn’t know that that simple, common act could put him in prison for years on a charge of criminal copyright infringement.
How did we get to the point where a student can go to prison for eight years for sharing a paper on the Internet?
Diego’s case is a reminder of the dangers of overly restrictive copyright laws. While Diego is finally in the clear, extreme criminal penalties for copyright infringement continue to chill research, innovation, and creativity all over the world, especially in countries that don’t have broad exemptions and limitations to copyright, or the same protections for fair use that we have in the United States.
In another sense, though, the case is a sad indictment of copyright law and policy decisions in the U.S. Diego’s story is a reminder of the far-reaching, worldwide implications of the United States government’s copyright law and policy. We failed Diego.
How did we get to the point where a student can go to prison for eight years for sharing a paper on the Internet? The answer is pretty simple: Colombia has severe copyright penalties because the United States told its government to introduce them. The law Diego was tried under came with a sentencing requirement that was set in order to comply with a trade agreement with the U.S.
International trade agreements are almost never good news for people who think that copyright’s scope and duration should be limited. By establishing minimum requirements that all countries must meet in protecting copyrighted works, they effectively create a floor for copyright law. It’s easy for signing countries to enact more restrictive laws than the agreement prescribes, but difficult to create less restrictive law.
Those agreements almost never carry requirements that participating nations honor limitations on copyright like fair use or fair dealing rights. Just this week, a coalition of 25 conservative groups sent a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) arguing against the inclusion of any provision in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that would require countries to include balanced copyright limitations and exceptions such as fair use, as EFF and other groups have suggested. Countries like Colombia essentially get the worst of both worlds: strong protection for large rights-holders and weak protection for their citizens’ rights.
As we’ve pointed out before, it’s depressing that someone can risk prison time for sharing academic research anywhere in the world. If open access were the standard for scientific research, Diego would not have gotten in trouble at all. And once again, it’s the actions of countries like the United States that are to blame. The U.S. government is one of the largest funders of scientific research in the world. If the United States were to adopt a gold open access standard for all of the research it funds—that is, if it required that research outputs be made available to the public immediately upon publication, with no embargo period—then academic publishers would be forced to adapt immediately, essentially setting open access as the worldwide default.
EFF is delighted that Diego can rest easy and focus on his research, but unfortunately, the global conditions exist to put researchers all over the world in similar situations. No one should face years in prison for the act of sharing academic research. Making the changes in law and policy to prevent stories like Diego’s from happening again is a goal we should all share.