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Sharing copyright material online not a simple case of David versus Goliath Add to ...

The French film critic André Bazin, co-founder of the famed Cahiers du Cinéma, died at the age of 40 in 1958. His influence on film theory and criticism has grown in the intervening years thanks to the posthumous publication of a four-volume collection of his articles, which began appearing in English in the late-1960s under the title What is Cinema?

That text has been a staple in film studies programs since the 1970s, but Montreal freelance translator and film buff Timothy Barnard has never been satisfied with the quality of the English translation. As 2008 and the 50th anniversary of Bazin’s death approached, he spied an opportunity: In Canada, Bazin’s work would now enter the public domain, so Barnard began his own translation. He knew that no commercial publisher would be interested in a work that could not be sold in the U.S. or Britain, where the term of copyright is life plus 70 years. So, he self-published his translation at his own expense.

You can sometimes find this beautifully printed hardcover book in Toronto at the TIFF gift shop or the York University bookstore. But sometimes, to Barnard’s horror, you could also find it at AAAAARG.fail, a website that is run by Sean Dockray, an American PhD student at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and that is packed with electronic versions of academic titles that users have uploaded to the site.

Barnard is now suing Dockray for copyright infringement in Quebec, in a suit that also names site administrator Nenad Romic, and Leuphana University in Germany, the institution where Romic studies and where Barnard alleges that the scanning of library books for upload took place. Barnard says in his suit, filed last October and updated Thursday, that he told Dockray to take down the book – an electronic scan of a library copy – in 2011 and that it came down for a while but it had reappeared by 2015, and was still there when he originally filed his suit. (These are allegations and have not been proved in court.)

If you visit AAAAARG today, you will find that Barnard’s version of What is Cinema? has been removed “due to request by translator” and it’s clear that Dockray’s lawyer, Cory Verbauwhede, who says his client did not personally upload the book either time, considers this a nuisance suit. “Timothy Barnard is trying to litigate a political claim based on the fact that his translation may have been uploaded on the site by a party which he is not suing and despite the fact that both times the book was taken down upon request,” Verbauwhede said in an e-mail.

He also argued that AAAAARG could not be considered a site whose main purpose was infringement because of its academic history and the arcane and educational nature of most of the material on it.

Researchers “sharing” copyright material online like to paint themselves as Davids fighting the mighty Goliath of academic publishing. Last month, a post since removed from the fundraising site gofundme.com, said Dockray was being sued by "certain malefactors of great wealth," which to anyone who knows much about Canadian publishing is a hilarious misrepresentation. In the continuing battle between salaried academics – who don’t care much about copyright since they usually hand theirs to their publishers – and freelance writers – who do care because that’s how they earn royalties – it is Barnard who is the little guy tackling the giant.

There are about 42,000 items on AAAARG, but that includes articles, documents, manuals, unpublished theses and the like, so that Dockray can’t say how many books are on the site to which 4,000 members have uploaded material in the past decade. “I’m not trying to say that there is never any copyright infringement,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But when there is a specific takedown notice, we always comply.” He said he has received 15 takedown notices in the past 11 years.

His site is mainly a place where academics seek out academic books, but it casts its net wide; it offers members free access to the work of numerous popular writers, including all of Ian McEwan’s novels and many of Margaret Atwood’s. On Atwood’s author page, there are members-only links to Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin and, in full public view for anyone who clicks on it, a complete PDF of her non-fiction title Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Contacted by The Globe Thursday, Atwood said she had never heard of the site and had not authorized these uses, which would need to be cleared by her publisher. House of Anansi, which published Payback, also said it had never given AAAAARG permission to post the PDF.

When I talk to academics about copyright infringement, they lecture me about sharing “knowledge” and “information” as though writing was just about stacking up facts. They complain about the price of books and journals, and they rant about greedy textbook publishers. But they never explain to me why the power of the Internet can’t be harnessed to clear copyright before posting, or why writers outside of academe should be penalized for what some scholars consider the failings of academic publishing. If somebody wants to practise charity to benefit the apparently impoverished students who claim AAAARG gets them books they or their university libraries can’t afford, surely that should be up to the copyright holders.

Barnard, who makes his living off his freelance translation work and spent $20,000 of his own money publishing What is Cinema?, may never get his day in court: These issues are often settled before they further impoverish the litigants. But at least by putting his name to his complaint, he has exposed the lie that scholars who download books without permission are somehow copyright’s victims.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly attributed the words "certain malefactors of great wealth" to University of Melbourne PhD student Sean Dockray. In fact, the words appeared on the web page of a fundraising campaign that is supporting Mr. Dockray's legal defence. This version has been corrected.

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