Originally posted on the Nature news blog

Posted on behalf of Michele Catanzaro

A Colombian biology student is facing up to 8 years in jail and a fine for sharing a thesis by another scientist on a social network.

Diego Gómez Hoyos posted the 2006 work, about amphibian taxonomy, on Scribd in 2011. An undergraduate at the time, he had hoped that it would help fellow students with their fieldwork. But two years later, in 2013, he was notified that the author of the thesis was suing him for violating copyright laws. His case has now been taken up by the Karisma Foundation, a human rights organization in Bogotá, which has launched a campaign called “Sharing is not a crime”.

“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.

Gómez graduated in biology at the University of Quindío, in Armenia, Colombia, in 2010. His thesis was a study on population ecology of the local Cauca poison frog. “I shared the thesis because it was useful to identify amphibians in the fieldwork I did with my group at the university,” says Gómez.

But according to prosecutors, the move was criminal. Colombian copyright law was reformed in 2006 to meet the stringent copyright protection requirements of a free trade agreement that the country signed with the United States. Yet while the US has few criminal penalties for copyright infringement, Colombia allows only for a few exceptions.

“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.

Gómez says that he deleted the thesis from the social network as soon as he was notified of the legal proceedings. But the case against him is rolling on, with the most recent hearing taking place in Bogotá in May. He faces between 4 and 8 years in jail if found guilty. The next hearing will be in September.

The student, who is currently studying for a master’s degree in conservation of protected areas at the National University of Costa Rica in Heredia, refuses to reveal who is suing him. He says he does not want to “put pressure on this person”. “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].”

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on August 12, 2014.