When Diego Gomez, a biology master’s student at the University of Quindio in Colombia, shared a colleague’s thesis with other scientists over the Internet, he was doing what any other science grad student would do: sharing research he found useful so others could benefit from it and build on it. Indeed, this kind of sharing is the norm in academia, just as it is elsewhere in our increasingly social media-driven online world.
But the author of the paper filed a lawsuit over the “violation of [his] economic and related rights,” and Diego’s act of sharing was seen by Colombia’s legal system as a copyright violation—specifically, copying and distribution of copyrighted works without permission. That has put this master’s graduate in his late 20s at risk of being sentenced to four to eight years in prison with crippling monetary fines.
We have been following Diego’s case for the past two and a half years through several hearings and delays, and we continue to stand with him today. A new hearing was scheduled for this week, in which both the prosecution and defense were expected to present their closing arguments before a final ruling. But, once again, Diego’s hearing was postponed—this time because the prosecution filed a request for postponement because of tax holidays.
As we celebrate Open Access Week and reflect on two and a half years of covering Diego’s case, it brings an urgent reminder: open access must become the default in academic publishing, and we need global reforms to get there.
“Open access” refers to the free, immediate, online availability of scholarly research, in contrast to the current status quo of expensive subscription journals and paywalled databases. Open access policies are critical to education, innovation, and global progress.
Students, researchers, and scholars in developing countries face disproportionate barriers to accessing academic materials like journal articles and conference proceedings. Libraries are often under-resourced, and universities simply cannot afford the pricey subscription bundles required to access journals. This issue of unequal resources is not limited to developing countries; high school students in rural regions without large universities, recent graduates with no institutional affiliation, and amateur scholars relying on public libraries all face similar barriers.
But no matter where they are in the world, long-standing principles of academic freedom require that students and researchers be able to communicate, teach, and inquire freely without fear of retribution or imprisonment. This is meant to protect scholars with controversial ideas or dissenting opinions, and it certainly extends to the mundane act of sharing research online.
Diego’s case exemplifies the real-life threat that excessive copyright laws pose to academic freedom. Colombia’s severe copyright laws were enacted as part of a trade agreement with the United States, which compelled Colombian lawmakers to heighten already-strict prison sentences and monetary fines. Such extreme copyright laws chill users’ rights, especially when it comes to innovation, creativity, and research. If other users see Diego’s case and fear the jail time or debilitating fines that can come with copyright infringement allegations, everyday activities like sharing academic resources can become intimidating.
Regardless of the details of copyright penalties, the reality of Diego’s case is that he would not be awaiting yet another hearing if open access were the global default in academic publishing. We need major reform of our laws, both internationally and domestically, to ensure that students and academics are not made criminals for promoting scientific progress and exercising their creative expression—in other words, for doing their jobs.
As we celebrate Open Access Week, join EFF and open access allies all over the world in standing with Diego.
EFF is proud to participate in Open Access Week. Check back all week for opportunities to get involved with the fight for open access.