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Diego Gómez coming up for air in February 2014.

Diego Gómez coming up for air in February 2014.

Courtesy of Diego Gómez

Colombian grad student faces jail for sharing a thesis online

Diego Gómez Hoyos is studying for a master’s degree in conservation and wildlife management. But his thirst for knowledge is also threatening his freedom.

The 26-year-old Colombian biologist faces up to 8 years in prison for posting a copy of another scientist’s thesis online. Colombia, like many other countries, grants strong protections to authors. In 2006, its law was revised to bring it into agreement with a free trade agreement with the United States, lengthening jail times and increasing fines.

“What worries our community is how a relationship of colleagues turned into a tremendous legal affair, with these horrible consequences,” writes Ángela Suárez-Mayorga of the University of the Andes in Bogotá, to ScienceInsider in an e-mail. “Nobody believes that Gómez should go to jail for sharing a document.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Quindío in Colombia, Gómez studied the population ecology of the Cauca poison frog (Andinobates bombetes), an endangered species native to Colombia. He had to work largely by himself, because the university did not have a herpetologist. Nor did the library have access to specialized journals or databases. Gómez saved money for trips to the museum collections in Bogotá. He built up a personal collection of journal articles, gathered during his trips. He started a study group on amphibians and reptiles. After graduation, while he worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society, he stayed in touch with students interested in the work.

In 2011, Gómez came across a master’s thesis, completed at the National University of Colombia in 2006, that would be useful for identifying amphibians he had seen in protected areas. He posted the thesis on Scribd to allow it to be easily downloaded by other researchers and students. At the time, the downloads were free. When Scribd started charging unregistered users $5 per download, Gómez removed the thesis.

The author of the thesis, a Colombian herpetologist, however, had already notified police that it had been posted without his permission. After being contacted by police, Gómez cooperated with the investigation. In April 2013, a criminal complaint was filed. This past fall, he learned that the office of the attorney general was going to bring the case to trial. Gómez “was in a panic,” says Carolina Botero, an attorney at Fundación Karisma, a digital rights advocacy organization in Bogotá, which is advocating on his behalf.

Botero had heard about Gomez’s plight through a mutual friend and arranged for a pro bono attorney to represent him. “I am very concerned and puzzled,” Gómez wrote in a statement posted on the foundation website earlier this month. “Above all, I’m disconcerted that this activity I did for academic purposes may be considered a crime.” 

Botero and others say that Colombia has an outdated list of exceptions to authors’ rights. “The whole law is misguided in this issue,” says Vivian Páez of the University of Antioquia in Medellin, president of the Colombian Association of Herpetologists.

Botero says her organization tried for months to negotiate a settlement with the author, to no avail. Gomez has declined to identify the plaintiff “to not make this case a personal one.” Although the author has not been named in public documents, ScienceInsider has learned the identity of the author, who did not respond to a request for comment. A preliminary hearing was held in December. The trial was scheduled to begin this month, but has been delayed.  

Oscar Lizarazo, a lawyer who studies intellectual property and biodiversity policy at the National University of Colombia, thinks that a conviction is unlikely because Gomez did not intend to harm the author’s rights or profit. “In the unlikely event of being held criminally responsible, [I believe] he would receive a significantly lower penalty,” Lizarazo writes to ScienceInsider in an e-mail. At the same time, Lizarazo thinks that anyone wishing to post the work of another author should get permission first.

Whatever the outcome, Botero says, the case has already highlighted concerns about excessive penalties. “This case exemplifies the real life harm of … laws that protect the ‘economic rights’ of authors,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote on its blog. “We need major reform of our laws, both internationally and domestically, to ensure that people are not made criminals for promoting scientific progress and exercising their creative expression.”