In 2011, Diego Gómez Hoyos posted someone’s thesis about amphibian taxonomy on scribd while still an undergrad, hoping that by sharing the work he would help other fellow biology students. Come 2013, Hoyos was sued by the owner of the work and now faces copyright charges that, if found guilty, could have him jailed for up to 8 years.
Jail for sharing science
Hoyos quickly withdrew the paper from website as soon as he received the copyright infringement notice, but either way his case already came to the attention of the Colombian court. The country revised its copyright bill in 2006 following a free trade agreement it signed with the United States, to protect foreign interests. It’s unclear how Colombia modeled its copyright law, considering the US has only a couple of criminal penalties for cases of extreme copyright infringement, while Columbia seems to treat cases indiscriminately.
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“It is a really awful, disturbing case, for the complete lack of proportionality of the trial,” says Michael Carroll, director of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at the American University and member of the board of directors of the Public Library of Science. “In copyright systems all over the world we see authors of extreme claims but most other countries would filter out this case,” he adds.
Hoyos is now being backed by the Karisma Foundation, a human rights organization in Bogotá, which has launched a campaign called “Sharing is not a crime”.
“Lawmakers in developing countries, in their commitments to these kind of agreements, often don’t strike a balance,” says Carolina Botero, a lawyer at Karisma Foundation. “Reproducing a work without permission is not enough to face a criminal trial: it should have been done for profit, which is not the case,” she says.
Hoyos has refused to reveal the name of the copyright owner to avoid any kind of pressure that might fall upon the author. Still, he is in a very delicate situation. If found guilty, Hoyos, now pursuing a master’s degree in conservation of protected areas at the National University of Costa Rica in Heredia, faces between 4 and 8 years in jail.
“My lawyer has tried unsuccessfully to establish contacts with the complainant: I am open to negotiate and get to an agreement to move this issue out of the criminal trial,” he told Nature.
The case has left Gómez feeling disappointed. “I thought people did biology for passion, not for making money,” he says. “Now other scientists are much more circumspect [about sharing publications].”
It’s cases like these that should prompt policymakers to adopt an open-access approach, for the greater good of science. Vanity and profit should have no place in these sort of discussions.