Sharing is Not a Crime

by Digital Rights LAC on July 30, 2014


Diego posted a thesis from the “Master’s Program at Universidad Nacional de Colombia” on Scribd, five years after the piece of work was published and set available to the users of the University Library. Now, Diego is facing a penal process for violating copyright, something which could result in 4 to 8 years of prison. Diego’s Story opened the debate that Colombians have had pending: a balance between copyright with other rights like the access to knowledge. We decided to give Diego a chance to voice his point of view, because we strongly believe that #SharingIsNotACrime. Karisma Foundation.

Open letter, by Diego Gómez

My name is Diego Gomez and with 26 years old I have defined my great passion in life: the biodiversity conservation. Enjoying this passion, I have attained a BA in biology from the University of Quindío.

Currently, I study a Masters in Conservation and Wildlife Management in Costa Rica, and I have worked in research and preservation projects on endangered Colombian amphibians with local, national and international NGOs. This journey is just beginning. Despite the support of many institutions, teachers and researchers, it has not been entirely easy. What I have achieved so far I attribute it to the merits of my volunteering work, and my persistence in desiring and achieving to do research from the province, far from the large academic centers in Bogota and all major cities of the country.

Studying science (including biological sciences) from the province represents a higher level of difficulty, mainly because libraries and newspaper archives are small and they do not have the resources to pay the thousands of dollars for accessing specialized books and world’s major bibliographic databases; this circumstance limits the right to access to knowledge for students, researchers and professors who are in these regions. Not to mention that the museums or biological collections are quite scarce, to which is added that many university professors do not have a PhD as expected by their students.

Despite these restrictions, I learned about amphibians in Colombia through self-study and advice given by some professors from other universities, because at that time the University of Quindío did not have any herpetologists (those who study amphibians and reptiles). To access natural history museums, I used to save as much as I could in order to make trips to Bogota, where museums and larger biological collections are located. With a lot of effort, I managed to overcome all these difficulties and eventually I acquired books –gifts from my family or professors–, and copies of scientific articles that the world’s most renowned amphibian researchers hold in their personal libraries. In addition, along with some classmates and professors, we began a study group on amphibians and reptiles at the university, dreaming that at some point it would become a research group.

With the study group activated, the lack of funding for research did not stop us. In fact, we had a significant participation of young biology students. To prevent them from getting discouraged, I put all my effort to motivate them by sharing my experiences. First, through keynote presentations, I helped them to know basics concepts related to amphibians’ study and conservation to cope with the lack of books in the library. After the completion of my thesis and while working as a volunteer for one of the world’s most important conservation programs (Conservation Leadership Programme), as well as consulting for Wildlife Conservation Society, I began to advise some group member on their amphibian studies or researches. In addition, I connected some students with conservation projects that I used to carry out in the region voluntarily. Throughout this process, we realized that beyond the lack of specialized professors, museums and even funding of projects, one of the biggest obstacles we had was getting access to basic research information conducted in Colombia: for preserving, we have to know what to preserve and this is identified on previous research.

Internet was one of our main partners in this passionate search and study process for conservation. This tool decreased the gap between our position as students and future researchers from a provincial university, and major universities and research centers in Bogota and other cities. Through Internet, we requested and accessed the information needed to present our research and conservation projects, to define preservation objects, to publish our findings and to contribute to all students or young researchers who faced the same problems. That gap persists despite that the elitism in these disciplines has been overcome in appearance.

Internet, that increasingly useful tool in our lives that gives us access to knowledge, was the support for a few steps down the road for biodiversity conservation research. However, sharing knowledge on the Internet is jeopardizing the career I’m starting to build with great effort. With the spreading of Internet, sharing knowledge through the web quickly became a daily practice among academic circles. As usual among my colleagues, I shared with them documents and information considered relevant for our scientific interests. Assuming that I shared knowledge as an act of good faith, in gratitude for all the support I had received from other researchers in Colombia and other countries, and voluntarily for academic purposes and non-profit, I never imagined that this activity could be considered a crime.

Sharing is not a crime. Surely for those who do not know what have happened to me, sharing still is something inherent to our social and community practices; it is not associated with a crime. In the academia in general, and in such specialized field as the one I work, the important thing is to make a correct citation, attributing researchers’ work by indicating their name and year of publication and, of course, not claiming the work of another researcher, but to recognize it and value it. Therefore, what we usually do is to reference the findings and make them available to those who need them.

Three years ago, through a Facebook group in which I participated along with many others interested in the amphibian and reptile studies, I came across with a master’s thesis that was crucial to identify some amphibians I found in my field visits to some protected areas in the country. To access this information, it was necessary to travel to a library in Bogota. At that time, however, I thought it was something that could be of interested for other groups, so I shared it on the web. Although I was not the first or the only one (the document was in several sites already), for sharing knowledge –recognizing the authorship–, now the author advances a criminal case against me for “violation of economic rights and related rights.” I was told that this could result in jail sentence of 4 to 8 years.

In a few months my life has changed. Now I’m learning about hearings, accusations, lawsuits and lawyers; I am very concerned and puzzled. Above all, I’m disconcerted that this activity I did for academic purposes may be considered a crime, turning me into a “criminal.” Today what the vast majority of the country’s researchers and conservationists are doing, despite being committed to spreading knowledge, is turning us into criminals.

Today I am surprised that what is essential to the research and conservation (sharing knowledge) can be considered a crime. Today I am surprised that research and generated knowledge on natural history, taxonomy, systematics, ecology and other fields of biological sciences, which generally do not obey the market logic, is considered similar to software or an artistic work for commercial exploitation; a passion has been transformed into a market instrument. I can understand that for publishers, academic publications are market instruments, but I’m surprised that some biological sciences researchers also consider impertinent, especially illegal, that others disseminate their work without seeking profit. The work we shared on the Internet and the charge brought against me was the result of a graduate study course from the most renowned public university in Colombia. If I’m not mistaken, researchers are interested in disseminating those contributions we have made to science, and, with greater justification, when they have been generated from a public institution.

I believe my case is not unique. However, I may end up in jail even if I’m convinced that “sharing is not a crime.” We are not criminals for sharing knowledge, for researching, for contributing with our efforts for the conservation of our biodiversity and the growth of science in Colombia. What do you think?