Authors and publishers have different goals when it comes to the availability of their work, which can result in conflict that manifests itself in copyright issues. Specifically, when it comes to research, researchers want to share their discoveries; it is a great accomplishment to be published and to have one’s work viewed and sited by a greater number of people. However, publishers’ goals are more solely based on making money, so they often create more stringent copyright agreements to prevent other forums from allowing access to the work. Notably, many copyright infringements in this area arise from this difference in goals and beliefs about the material in question.
This conflict became pertinent in October 2017 when, in a statement by the self-named “Coalition for Responsible Sharing,” five publishers (American Chemical Society or ACS, Elsevier, Brill, Wiley, and Wolters Kluwer) joined together and announced that they planned to take formal steps against ResearchGate, an open access networking site for the academic community. Elsevier and ACS, specifically, brought a lawsuit against ResearchGate regarding this issue.
ResearchGate is a large, for-profit firm in Berlin, Germany that allows its over 13 million users to upload a large range of materials and publications. The successful company, which was founded in 2008, has raised over $87 million dollars from start-up investors including the Wellcome Trust charity, Goldman Sachs, and Bill Gates. But, much of their content, which is available to the public for free, violates publisher’s copyright agreements, which is what these publishers were understandably upset about. In the statement by the “Coalition for Responsible Sharing,” published on October 5, 2017, publishers allege that “ResearchGate’s primary service is taking high-quality content written and published by others and making as many as 7 million copyrighted articles – 40% of its total content – freely available via its for-profit platform.” The Coalition stated that they would be requesting ResearchGate to take down the material that infringed on copyright agreements via formal takedown notices. However, this is not a viable lasting solution – repeatedly sending takedown notices is only dealing with the breach after it has already been committed. That, says James Milne, a spokesperson for the Coalition group, is why the publishers, specifically, Elsevier and ACS joined together in bringing a lawsuit – so that these types of infringements are prevented in the first place; the publishers “are hoping that the German court will tell the social network that it has a duty to identify copyrighted material on its website, and remove it; that the site must check whether material it scrapes from the Internet is copyrighted before users are invited to ‘claim’ it and upload it; and that ResearchGate will also be told it cannot modify copyrighted material.”
As a response to the complaint, ResearchGate began to take down articles within a few days. While ResearchGate has not shared information about this with the publishers, the Coalition, as noted in their statement on October 10, 2017, “noticed that the site had removed ‘a significant number of copyrighted articles.’” However, there are still violations left to be addressed, and the goal of the suit is not to necessarily receive money damages, but more importantly, to protect publishers and stop this kind of copyright infringement from occurring both currently and in the future. As of November 15, ResearchGate has taken down 1.7 million articles from its site.
It is important to note, as Guido Westkamp, a professor of intellectual property at Queen Mary University of London says, that because this suit is in the German courts, the results “would usually be limited to Germany and would not [be] enforceable in the U.S.” What difference this would make in the U.S. is definitely an interesting point to think about.
Regardless of what happens in the courts, publishers can take an active role in preventing these breaches by more carefully informing researchers about what their agreements mean. Many of the breaches are not done intentionally; authors just don’t realize that uploading their work is a violation of their copyright agreement. So, if publishers are more clear in their copyright agreements, they may find their rights will end up being more protected.
Debra Erlich is a J.D. Candidate, 2019, at NYU School of Law.