Colombian Grad Student Finally Cleared Of Criminal Charges For Posting Academic Article Online

from the copyright-gone-mad dept

Three years ago, we brought you the horrifying story of Diego Gomez, a grad student in Colombia. While working on his own research, he relied on and cited a paper that he couldn't find anywhere else online. As was common practice in Colombia, Gomez uploaded that paper to Scribd so that others could follow his own work and understand his citation. As a research practice, this is a really good idea. Under copyright law, however, it gets stupidly problematic. And it was made much more stupidly problematic by the insane copyright law passed in Colombia -- under pressure from the US -- which made this a criminal act for which Gomez faced up to 8 years in prison along with monetary fines.

Again, he absolutely did upload someone else's paper to the internet -- but this was an academic paper, it wasn't for Gomez's own profit, but for perfectly reasonable academic purposes, to make sure people were better informed. Not only that, but as soon as he found out the paper's author was unhappy, he deleted the paper from Scribd. And yet he's spent the past few years dealing with criminal charges over it. Thankfully, just this week Gomez was cleared of any wrongdoing. It just cost him four years of absolute hell. And it's not totally over yet. While the judge has given a "not guilty" verdict, the prosecutor has already announced plans to appeal.

"I have been cleared. I am innocent," a delighted Gómez said after the verdict. "When I received the news, after 4 years with so much uncertainty, which is an obstacle in personal and professional life, that was a great happiness. However, knowing that the prosecutor appealed brings uncertainty back."

EFF has been heavily involved in this case, and note that it shows one of the many problems with countries ratcheting up punishments for copyright infringement often under the guise of "complying with international agreements.":

Diego’s story also demonstrates what can go wrong when nations enact severe penalties for copyright infringement. Even if all academic research were published freely and openly, researchers would still need to use and share copyrighted materials for educational purposes. With severe prison sentences on the line for copyright infringement, freedom of expression and intellectual freedom suffer.

Diego’s story also serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when copyright law is broadened through international agreements. The law Diego was prosecuted under was enacted as part of a trade agreement with the United States. But as is often the case when trade agreements are used to expand copyright law, the agreement only exported the U.S.’ extreme criminal penalties; it didn’t export our broad fair use provisions. When copyright law becomes more restrictive with no account for freedom of expression, people like Diego suffer.

Indeed. I know that we get a fair amount of pushback from some in the copyright industry whenever we talk about the free speech or chilling effects impact of overzealous copyright enforcement. Time and time again we're told that these are "anomalies" or that such things are impossible, because why would anyone ever use copyright to stifle someone's speech. However, I can't even imagine the horror that Gomez has gone through for the past four years, in which he was literally facing being locked up for years and fines for being a good academic. That's insane -- and so is any copyright law that would allow this to happen.

The fact that Colombian prosecutors aren't yet willing to drop this case is even more upsetting and concerning. What possible reason do they have for thinking that this case is worth pushing forward like this?


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  • icon
    justok (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 3:32am

    He was studying for an advanced degree and probably will use this degree both to get and continue in some professional capacity. Therefore, he did it for his own profit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Vidiot (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 4:33am

    I like the way "probably" becomes "he did".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Daydream, 25 May 2017 @ 4:36am

    So let me get this straight:

    Diego Gomez was sued, and had criminal charges brought against him, for...sharing a non-commercial work for educational purposes? And even though he took action to stop further unlicensed sharing of said work after he was sued, the prosecutors of the case are still targeting him, even going so far as to appeal the judge's decision?

    ...

    ......

    ...I'm not sure words exist to express my feelings on this. It's not like Gomez tried to bring about the apocalypse, he just shared one document in a culturally normal way, he did his best to fix things after being sued (and who sues as a first resort, anyway?), and yet these prosecutors still want to imprison him for...what? I can't understand their motives at all.

    Do they just think that having a law that gives them an excuse means they're allowed to hurt innocent people?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 5:36am

      Re: So let me get this straight:

      "yet these prosecutors still want to imprison him for...what?"

      Someone might have been able to make some money from the document if it hadn't been shared. Or, at least that's possible in their mind. The fact that he only shared it because he couldn't find a legal source is neither here nor there.

      Or, if that wasn't possible in this case, they want to ensure that people actually making profit or costing revenue think twice by making this guy an example.

      "Do they just think that having a law that gives them an excuse means they're allowed to hurt innocent people?"

      Yes, they do. Maximalists never care who gets in their way so long as they can imagine they're protecting some profit. Ordinary people are just collateral damage on their quest for imagined profits.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 12:27pm

      Re: So let me get this straight:

      He wasn't sued. Lawsuits happen in civil courts.

      Mr Gomez was criminally prosecuted, and was facing a longer prison sentence than some people get in the US for killing someone!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2017 @ 4:45am

    > But as is often the case when trade agreements are used to expand copyright law, the agreement only exported the U.S.’ extreme criminal penalties; it didn’t export our broad fair use provisions.

    Don't worry, it's a *trade* agreement. We've been exporting our extreme criminal penalties, so soon we'll be *importing* restrictions on fair use. The USTR will be ecstatic about having that kind of balance...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 7:45am

      Re:

      We've been exporting our extreme criminal penalties, so soon we'll be importing restrictions on fair use.

      I sure hope they have appropriate levy's on these imports and exports. I wonder how much Government makes off that tax on an annual basis?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2017 @ 8:15am

      Re:

      > We've been exporting our extreme criminal penalties, so soon we'll be *importing* restrictions on fair use.

      The Berne Convention - drafted in 1886, signed by the US in 1988(!) - was a really big nail in Public Domain's coffin. I don't doubt that Big Media will use trade agreements as you say, to extend copyright terms, restrictions on fair use, etcetera, to the least common denominator of international law.

      ... and as Big Media has more influence in some countries than others, that least common denominator will be theirs to control.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Peter (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 4:53am

    Isn't it ironic that the very law passed to promote the sciences is used here to do the exact opposite?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2017 @ 5:46am

    Of course copyright maximalists are fine with harmful impacts to education. How else do you expect to there to be more future maximalists? The only acceptable form of "education" is the AA-holes' "anti-piracy education" programs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bergman (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 12:43pm

      Re:

      Well, yeah -- if you're ignorant of the fact that you have rights as a consumer under copyright law, and only know you have obligations, then litigation is SO much simpler for the MAFIAA!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bamboo Harvester (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 6:01am

    Original author...

    ... I've got to wonder why he was "unhappy" with his paper being cited and published. It couldn't be found anywhere with a search, so he wasn't getting any recognition for it.

    What was that line about bad publicity?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Advocate (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 7:43am

    Eliminate copyright. It offers no benefits in the modern world (with the internet) that aren't far outweighed by the cost of information to the people and shenanigans like this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 25 May 2017 @ 9:12am

    "In this paper I will prove conclusively that Donald Trump incompetent and unfit for the office of President of the United States. I will be relying heavily on a new academic paper by I. M. Frawd which shows that he is delusional and suffering from multiple mental conditions. Unfortunately you won't be able to check my references as the paper isn't available anywhere online and I can't upload it without breaking copyright law, so you'll just have to trust me that everything I write is true."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Daydream, 25 May 2017 @ 3:31pm

      Re:

      I remember last year, there was a story about how judges were using Compas assessment software to identify criminals as 'high risk' and extend their sentences.
      The code and algorithms used in said software, of course, are 'proprietary' so they aren't allowed to be looked at by defense lawyers to see if they actually do anything.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 4:39pm

        Re: Re:

        Those algorithms are likely 'proprietary' random number generators (of the questionable quality kind) that perform a function that could be likened to rolling loaded dice.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    tp, 25 May 2017 @ 5:26pm

    Grad students are always in danger

    Grad students are supposed to be the best people university has found from the pool of students trying to enter the school. So they are expected to follow the copyright rules more accurately than other people on the planet. If they can handle the complex requirements of their future work, they have no problems regognizing where the line between illegal copyright infringement and valid sharing is at. The copyright rules are enforced to the whole population, so the best people ought to follow it even more carefully.

    While we can always speculate how great everything was if the copyright rules were removed, that isn't currently the case, and there's global requirements to follow the rules. Ordinary people need to follow the rules on global scale. Authors need to be extreamly strict on copyright rules. Grad students are expected to be accurate enough that they never make a mistake in this kind of issues.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 5:41pm

      Re: Grad students are always in danger

      Authors need to be extreamly(sp) strict on copyright rules.

      Authors of academic papers should be strict on attribution, not copyright. I have never heard of an academic becoming rich from their academic works. Books that use their research maybe, but the written description of their research, never.

      In the mean time, organizations like Elsivier take the copyrights from academics, for their own enrichment, not the academics.

      Try again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2017 @ 6:13pm

      Re: Grad students are always in danger

      So they are expected to follow the copyright rules more accurately than other people on the planet

      Right... it's up to grad students to be at the top of the "who can follow copyright law the best" game. And not the companies that actually enforce copyright, because why else would they rip off images from other websites and image creators for their webpage design?

      This amount of leeway you keep giving to the likes of the RIAA is bloody ridiculous, Mr. I-Think-The-Public-Domain-is_Illegal.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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