Global publishing giant wins $15 million damages against researcher for sharing publicly-funded knowledge

From Privacy News Online:

It’s not every day that one of the world’s largest publishing companies is awarded $15 million in damages for copyright infringement against a site set up by a Kazakh neuroscientist. That makes the almost total lack of wider coverage of Elsevier’s win in New York against Sci-Hub surprising. But it is only the latest development in a saga that is of great interest for the deep flaws it exposes in both scientific publishing and copyright itself.

The court awarded $15 million damages to the scientific publisher on the basis of 100 articles published by Elsevier that had been made available without permission on Sci-Hub and a similar site called LibGen. At the time of writing, Sci-Hub claims to hold 62 million scientific research papers – probably a majority of all those ever published – most of which are unauthorized copies. According to a report in the scientific journal Science last year, it is Elsevier which is most affected by Sci-Hub’s activities:

“Over the 6 months leading up to March [2016], Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents. More than 2.6 million download requests came from Iran, 3.4 million from India, and 4.4 million from China. The papers cover every scientific topic, from obscure physics experiments published decades ago to the latest breakthroughs in biotechnology. The publisher with the most requested Sci-Hub articles? It is Elsevier by a long shot – Sci-Hub provided half-a-million downloads of Elsevier papers in one recent week.”

Those figures help to explain why Elsevier has been pursuing Sci-Hub doggedly for some years. Back in December 2015, the same New York judge who has just awarded the $15 million to Elsevier issued a preliminary injunction against the site’s operator. Access to the original domain – – was suspended, but it carried on using a different domain. Its servers, meanwhile, remain beyond the reach of US law, since they are located in Russia. In the age of VPNs, attempts to block the site are similarly pointless.

. . . .

Most of the papers published by Elsevier and the other academic publishing houses and found on Sci-Hub were written by scientists and academics whose research grants were paid for by the public. Once written those papers were submitted to a relevant journal, where an editor or editorial board chose which ones should be considered for publication. To that end, the papers were passed to referees who scrutinized them as part of the peer review system, whereby fellow academics read the text, and judge whether it deserves to be published as is, or needs revisions and corrections. Typically, neither editorial boards nor peer reviewers are paid for their work, which is carried out as a kind of academic responsibility accepted by all as part of the job, and done for the greater good of society.

That is, most of the work writing, checking and editing a paper is carried out completely for free. The only costs that academic publishers incur are typically for production, which are limited if publication is purely digital, as is increasingly the case. Given the extremely efficient nature of the academic publishing system, it will come as no surprise to learn that leading companies in the sector – including Elsevier – have consistently achieved profit margins between 30% and 40%, levels almost unheard of in other industries.

Such elevated profit margins have come as the prices paid by academic libraries to subscribe to titles have increased rapidly. While the cost of living increased by 73% between 1986 and 2004, the expenditure by research libraries on subscriptions to academic journals went up by 273% in the same period. The trend has continued since then.

Link to the rest at Privacy News Online and thanks to Paul at  The Digital Reader for the tip.

14 thoughts on “Global publishing giant wins $15 million damages against researcher for sharing publicly-funded knowledge”

  1. Elsevier made it far cheaper to ‘pirate’ than to pay for their ‘gatekeeping’ so it’s no surprise that there are ‘pirates’. (Not that there are any actual ‘pirates’ in this action, but copyright infringement just doesn’t sound as bad. And it looks even worse on Elsevier’s part when they lay claim to things they didn’t make or pay to have made – yet expect others to pay them for.)

    As higher education is starting to turn away from overpriced ‘can’t be reused next year’ books, so will research turn away from Elsevier and their like.

    “Its servers, meanwhile, remain beyond the reach of US law, since they are located in Russia.”

    And no doubt the Russian courts won’t find any problem with what’s going on, so Elsevier’s can either bring their prices down to something that’s more reasonable to the researchers – or continue to throw toys out of their pram when they see others offering the same data cheaper/free.

    Of course Elsevier’s real fear is that they’ll lose control of getting ‘new’ research papers that aren’t offered to them anymore.

    Interesting times are coming, and the internet still routes around interruptions.

    • They don’t need to enforce this judgment, the fact that they got one this large will intimidate anyone else from trying to do anything similar.

      That’s what they were after, not money.

  2. This needs to be overturned. Any research that is publicly funded should have the results freely publicly available to said public. This is disgusting. Those results, if paid by US taxes, are MINE.

          • War is not peace.

            The rights and ownership of a specific article are not a function of who funded the research. The rights are to the specific presentation of the knowledge, not to the knowledge contained in that presentation.

            Anyone is free to exploit the knowledge gained through government funded research. It happens everyday. But they are not free to exploit a specific presentation of that knowledge.

              • Intellectual property is the basis of the rights authors have to their own works. It is the root idea that allows an author to have a copyright to his own work and exploit that work for his own benefit.

                The subject of his writing doesn’t determine whether he has such rights. His rights are to the unique, original, and specific work dealing with the subject.

                He has no rights to the subject. Anyone can write about it. He has no rights to the knowledge. Anyone can know it. We are all free to know.

                One of the rights the author has is to transfer his IP rights to his unique, original, and specific work to someone else. That’s what authors do everyday with publishers.

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