Diego Gomez Is Safe, But His Legal Battle Demonstrates How Copyright Policy Creates Dangers To Research

from the this-is-a-problem dept

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.

After a very long ordeal, we can breathe a sigh of relief: a Colombian appeals court has affirmed the lower court's acquittal of 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?

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.

Republished from EFF's Deeplinks blog.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Dec 2017 @ 4:02pm

    Copyright is wrong

    Copyright has never helped the public that it was supposedly created to help in the first place. It has become a weapon to be wielded against the public and every singe day millions of false accusations are hurled across the internet stifling innovation and competition.

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

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 28 Dec 2017 @ 3:47am

      Re: Copyright is wrong

      Even though I do agree that some sort of limited copyrights could be given to creators to help them (ie: much shorter term, limited to commercial use etc) you are right when you say there wasn't any time where copyright really helped progress and arts. Since historic times when copyright was enacted to protect patterns in textiles it was always about protecting the pockets of a small group. You can't possibly benefit anyone by setting copyrights with infinite duration (for all purposes, something that extends well beyond my expected lifetime is infinite to me), carved in stone in such a way that nothing can be built upon it and, worst of all, can be assigned to somebody other than the creator him/herself.

      That's why I currently oppose all and any form of copyrights. Awesome creators will be awesome and will make money regardless of copyrights. In fact, most little creators make money *despite* copyrights nowadays.

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

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 27 Dec 2017 @ 5:24pm

    I seriously don't get the rationale behind "digital" copyright offenses, particularly like this. As if a paper copy can't be read and referenced by more than one person. _This Master's thesis will self-destruct in five hours._ As if you going to a library, archive, or repository is fine because you had to do more work to get to it. But screw you if you give or get it over a network or some other digital medium, you evil little person.

    Those theses should be on uni servers accessible to the public anyway.

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

  • identicon
    Châu, 27 Dec 2017 @ 6:26pm

    Steal from library

    Law teach people share virtual copy is many bigger crime than steal real copy from library. Which cause more harm? judges and courts need think about stupid laws.

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

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 28 Dec 2017 @ 5:00am

      Re: Steal from library

      Such is just one of the insane aspects of modern copyright law, where infringement carries a higher penalty than actual theft.

      Walk out of a store with a CD/DVD? Minor fine, slap on the wrist. Download a CD/DVD and catch the wrong group's attention? Face a fine large enough to bankrupt a family.

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

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