‘Pirate Queen’ for scientific publications on trial in India’s landmark copyright case

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KOCHI (Kerala) – Sci-Hub is a hacker website that aims to “remove all barriers in the way of science”.

It is with this noble motto that the portal has provided mass access to tens of millions of research articles, creating a global fan base among students and researchers who cannot afford the high subscription fees. or the one-time payments needed to access it.

But Sci-Hub’s continued ability to do so in India, home to its second-largest user base after China, now hinges on an ongoing case in Delhi that has generated broad community support. Indian scholar.

In December 2020, three major global publishers, Elsevier, Wiley and American Chemical Society, filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court against Sci-Hub and Libgen, another file sharing site. The publishers accused the sites of infringing their copyrights and asked the Indian authorities to block access.

“Pirate sites like Sci-Hub threaten the integrity of scientific records and the security of academic and personal data,” the publishers said in a press release. “They compromise the security of libraries and higher education institutions to gain unauthorized access to scientific databases and other proprietary intellectual property, and illegally harvest journal articles and e-books,” he said. -he adds.

Scheduled for its next hearing on Feb. 10, a ruling in favor of Sci-Hub and Libgen could spark wider acceptance of both websites, impacting the business models of academic publishers who are significantly dependent on subscription revenue.

The case has also gained momentum as it is the first time that Alexandra Elbakyan, the 33-year-old Kazakh researcher and programmer who founded Sci-Hub in 2011, has been defended in court. A team of Indian lawyers, committed to the cause of open access, work pro bono.

Ms Elbakyan, in an email to the Straits Times, said that in overseas cases she had no time to organize lawyers and was not even aware in many cases that the site had been prosecuted. Sci-Hub and Libgen are blocked in several European countries for “illegal activity”.

But Indian courts might take a different view given the public interest exemptions in the country’s 1957 Copyright Act, including one on ‘fair dealings’ that allows reproduction of published literature. for research and private use.

In 2016, the Delhi High Court dismissed a case brought by publishers including Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press against Rameshwari Photocopy Service, a Delhi store popular with students, and Delhi University for breaching their copyright by photocopying and reproducing their editions. The ruling, which relied on the fair use clause, said copyright is “not an inevitable, divine or natural right”.

Ms Elbakyan’s legal team told ST that their defense was also “rooted in public interest principles” and argued that the fair dealing provision should “extend to search enablers such as Sci-Hub”.

“In a country that finds it extremely difficult to gain meaningful access to the latest scientific developments – due to soaring prices for the journals that publish them, coupled with our own socio-economic realities – the success of Sci-Hub would remove a barrier major scientific advancement,” the attorneys said in a statement.

Ms Elbakyan, known as the “Robin Hood of science”, told Nature magazine last month that “open communication is a fundamental property of science and makes scientific progress possible”.

“Paid access prevents that,” she said, raising concern that scientific knowledge becomes the “private property of a corporation.”

“It’s a threat, not Sci-Hub,” added Ms. Elbakyan, who was frustrated with restricted access to literature in her early 20s while researching brain-computer interfaces.

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