Society complaint alleges copyright infringement and spoofing of its website

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has filed a lawsuit against a website that illegally bypasses paywalls to provide free access to millions of academic papers and books.

Sci-Hub — founded in September 2011 by former neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan — provides illicit free access to 62 million scholarly papers and counting. In its complaint dated 23 June, the ACS alleges copyright infringement, trademark counterfeiting and trademark infringement on the part of SciHub.

Sci-Hub, which is most popular in China, India and Iran, was recently also on the receiving end of a copyright infringement lawsuit from Dutch publishing giant Elsevier. Last month, a US court granted Elsevier $15 million (£12 million) in damages from Sci-Hub, the Library of Genesis and related sites. Neither Elbakyan nor her legal representatives attended court. In 2015, a judge ruled that Sci-Hub violates US copyright law and therefore must be shut down, but the site resurfaced using different domains.

‘ACS discovered that in order to lure users to its illegitimate sources of the society’s stolen content, Sci-Hub conspirators most recently created “spoofed” websites that mirror the look and feel of the society’s own scientific publishing website,’ said Glenn Ruskin, ACS director of external affairs and communications, in a statement on 28 June. ‘Through these pirate sites, Sci-Hub illegally distributes copyrighted scientific journal articles and book content stolen from the ACS. The Sci-Hub pirate sites also have illegally counterfeited and replicated a number of protected trademarks of the ACS.’

It is unclear if publishers will be able to pursue Sci-Hub, which is run out of Russia, for damages. Elbakyan, who could not be reached for comment, also lives outside the court’s jurisdiction.

Björn Brembs, a neurobiologist at the University of Regensburg in Germany and a long-standing open access advocate, tells Chemistry World: ‘It must be obvious to everybody that all of these suits are purely symbolic.’ He noted that no money will flow from these lawsuits since there is no money in Sci-Hub.

Regardless, the ACS is also seeking damages from Sci-Hub and demanding payment of the society’s legal fees with interest. This is in addition to the ACS’s demands that Sci-Hub immediately cease ‘illegal distribution of ACS copyrighted materials’ and ‘illegal use of ACS’s trademarks and false representation’.

Pirated papers

Despite committing copyright infringement on a mass scale, Sci-Hub has become popular among researchers. A 2016 analysis of download data from Sci-Hub in Science uncovered 28 million download requests over a six month period. Out of those 28 million, nearly 1.9 million downloads were of papers published by the ACS, which is fourth on the list of most affected publishers in the sample behind Elsevier, Springer and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, respectively.

In response to a follow-up 2016 survey by Science, which received nearly 11,000 responses, 88% claimed it was not wrong to download pirated papers and just under 60% of respondents reported using Sci-Hub.

According to another recent analysis of Sci-Hub’s contents from the same data, there is a download bias towards chemistry: 12 out of 20 journals whose content is most downloaded from Sci-Hub are from the field of chemistry. This includes the Journal of the American Chemical Society, which is second on that list behind Nature.

‘It seems unlikely that the problem of illicit article-sharing will be resolved purely in the courts,’ says Matthew Cockerill, co-founder of open access publisher BioMed Central and cloud computing firm Riffyn. ‘The publishing industry also needs to look carefully at its offerings in terms of both business model and user experience — and that applies to both commercial publishers and not-for-profits.’

While legal battles against Sci-Hub drag on, tools that provide similar services legally are popping up. Unpaywall, for instance, finds free versions of paywalled papers deposited online by the authors themselves. Unpaywall is successful between 50% and 85% of the time, the tool’s website claims.