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Battling Piracy in Academic Publishing

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on May 11, 2016 9:33:11 AM
Last year, we took a look at a lawsuit that was filed by publisher Elsevier against several sites, the most prominent of which were Library Genesis and Sci-Hub.

Both Library Genesis and Sci-Hub make paywalled research papers available for free to users both through direct download of already-accessed works through EDU proxies that allow them to download any paper not in their library.
Since that article, a lot has happened in the lawsuit. In November of 2015, the judge granted a preliminary injunction against Sci-Hub, ordering that the site be shuttered. That briefly brought the site offline and, perhaps most importantly, resulted in it losing its .ORG domain.

Unfortunately for publishers, Sci-Hub was quickly back online with a new .IO domain. However, that only lasted six months as that domain was also revoked, forcing the site to use its .BZ and .CC domains.

Still, for publishers, this story is a frustrating one. With over a year of litigation and a series of victories, the site remains active and continues to grow.

For those who follow copyright, this story is a familiar one. The Pirate Bay, the best known piracy website currently running, has long eluded closure despite a multitude of court orders, seizures and even the conviction and sentencing of the site’s founders.

Part of the problem is jurisdiction. Sci-Hub is owned and operated by Kazakhstan researcher Alexandra Elbakyan. An injunction secured in the United States may prevent U.S. companies from hosting the site or otherwise aiding her, it does little to reach her in Kazakhstan.

On the Internet, legal jurisdictions often matter very little. With how trivial it is to move a site to a new country or create a new domain, rightsholders often find themselves spending years litigating only to have their efforts undone by infringers simply moving the site.

As The Pirate Bay showed, even the arrest of the founders is not a guarantee a site will be shuttered. Passing ownership of a site is often as easy as exchanging passwords, making it so that it’s trivial to keep a site alive, even if the operator is in jail.

But the most difficult element for rightsholders is that, often times, they aren’t just battling a site or even a network of sites, they’re battling an ideology.

Whether it’s movies, music, videogames or scientific research, there are those who believe that any restrictions placed on accessing that work are tantamount to censorship and should be railed against.

However, this is where publishers can learn a great deal from the mistakes made by movie studios and record labels.

For example, in 2000, the record labels were able to successfully shut down Napster, but a replacement for the service had already been launched. The stage for the next fight had been set before the first one was finished.

Up until the launching of Sci-Hub, academic publishing had largely escaped Internet piracy. But it’s important to realize that Sci-Hub is not going to be the end of the battle. If the fight against academic publishing piracy is going to be won, or even to simply see progress, it needs to be done through a combination of legal efforts, business model shifts and public relations.

While legal solutions are important, being overly focused on them just sets the stage for a never-ending battle. When the record labels targeted Napster, they did so solely through the prism of a lawsuit. As such, when Napster closed, the pirates were ready to move on.

Even if Sci-Hub is closed, academic publishing piracy will not be beaten by litigation alone. Publishers have a chance to learn from mistakes made more than a decade ago and, hopefully, find themselves in a better position than other kinds of rightsholders.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.