It’s not every day that one of the world’s largest publishing companies is awarded $15 million in damages for copyright infringement against a site set up by a Kazakh neuroscientist. That makes the almost total lack of wider coverage of Elsevier’s win in New York against Sci-Hub surprising. But it is only the latest development in a saga that is of great interest for the deep flaws it exposes in both scientific publishing and copyright itself.
The court awarded $15 million damages to the scientific publisher on the basis of 100 articles published by Elsevier that had been made available without permission on Sci-Hub and a similar site called LibGen. At the time of writing, Sci-Hub claims to hold 62 million scientific research papers – probably a majority of all those ever published – most of which are unauthorized copies. According to a report in the scientific journal Science last year, it is Elsevier which is most affected by Sci-Hub’s activities:
“Over the 6 months leading up to March , Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents. More than 2.6 million download requests came from Iran, 3.4 million from India, and 4.4 million from China. The papers cover every scientific topic, from obscure physics experiments published decades ago to the latest breakthroughs in biotechnology. The publisher with the most requested Sci-Hub articles? It is Elsevier by a long shot – Sci-Hub provided half-a-million downloads of Elsevier papers in one recent week.”
Those figures help to explain why Elsevier has been pursuing Sci-Hub doggedly for some years. Back in December 2015, the same New York judge who has just awarded the $15 million to Elsevier issued a preliminary injunction against the site’s operator. Access to the original domain – sci-hub.org – was suspended, but it carried on using a different