ResearchGate is often a place individuals will go to snag PDFs which are typically provided by authors, not publishers. It refers to itself as a community and network for researchers to share and discuss their research with others from around the globe. ResearchGate explicitly states that they are not liable for any copyright infringement, and that the responsibility rests with the individual; it is entirely up to the individual to either post the PDF to be downloaded freely, or to send the PDF to individuals upon request.
I have multiple questions surrounding the use of ResearchGate. Number one, should libraries be directing individuals to ResearchGate to ask authors for copies of their articles? Number two, should our document delivery service be providing copies of PDFs from ResearchGate to our library patrons? I am personally very hesitant to refer anyone to ResearchGate as I find most faculty researchers are not aware of who truly holds the copyright to their published articles. Thank you!
I first heard about “ResearchGate” at a copyright training I was conducting for librarians.
There I was, holding forth about Section 108 and Fair Use, when out of the blue, an academic librarian asked me: “What do you think of Researchgate?”
This question triggered my number one rule for lawyering: never assume you know an answer; always do your research. So even though my brain figured that “Researchgate” was a new scandal involving falsification of data, I instead replied: “I have to admit, I am not familiar with that.”
Good thing I followed rule number one!
But first, here’s what I have learned:
Notably, as the member points out, ResearchGate’s “Terms” for submitters reinforces the rights of authors:
As a member, when you post full-text articles or supplementary materials on ResearchGate, you do not transfer or assign copyright to us. Rather, you make the content available to the public through ResearchGate.
…about encourages users to respect the rights of others:
If you choose to privately archive or publicly post content, we encourage you to first confirm your rights before doing so. … As we do not have any information about rights you may hold, or any license terms or other restrictions which might apply to such content, we necessarily rely on you to understand your rights and act accordingly.
ResearchGate’s relationship with users is also governed by clauses on “Liability” and “Indemnification”—with ResearchGate attempting to pass all liability for a copyright infringement onto the users who supply content.
And finally, as also shown in their policies, ResearchGate also takes advantage of the “notice and takedown” provisions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to assure itself “safe harbor,” in the event a user posts infringing content.
What I found at ResearchGate.com was what looks like a thorough attempt to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s to respect intellectual property. They probably have a very good lawyer.
But as I said, “always do your research,” so in addition to visiting their site, I also visited PACER to see if ResearchGate is being sued by anyone for copyright infringement. And boy, are they ever.
ResearchGate GmbH (its corporate name in Germany, where it appears to be based) is being sued by Elsevier, Inc., Elsevier Ltd., Elsevier B.V. and the American Chemical Society (“ACS”). The basis for the suit, as set forth in paragraph “three” of the plaintiff’s complaint, is the ResearchGate’s use of “Published Journal Articles” (which the suit calls “PJA”s):
This lawsuit focuses on ResearchGate’s intentional misconduct vis-à-vis its online
file-sharing / download service, where the dissemination of unauthorized copies of PJAs
constitutes an enormous infringement of the copyrights owned by ACS, Elsevier and other
journal publishers. The lawsuit is not about researchers and scientists collaborating; asking and
answering questions; promoting themselves, their projects, or their findings; or sharing research
findings, raw data, or pre-prints of articles.
And, just in case that doesn’t sound too bad, here’s the next paragraph:
ResearchGate’s infringing activity is no accident. Infringing copies of PJAs are a
cornerstone to ResearchGate’s growth strategy. ResearchGate deliberately utilizes the infringing
copies to grow the traffic to its website, its base of registered users, its digital content, and its
revenues and investment from venture capital. ResearchGate knows that the PJAs at issue
cannot be lawfully uploaded to and downloaded from the RG Website. Nevertheless, in violation of the rights of ACS, Elsevier, and others, ResearchGate uploads infringing copies of
PJAs and encourages and induces others to do so. ResearchGate finds copies of the PJAs on the
Internet and uploads them to computer servers it owns or controls. In addition, ResearchGate
lures others into uploading copies of the PJAs, including by directly asking them to do so,
encouraging use of a “request full-text” feature, and misleadingly promoting the concept of “selfarchiving.”[sic] ResearchGate is well aware that, as a result, it has turned the RG Website into a focal point for massive copyright infringement.
Yikes, that sounds dire, right? And very akin to the member’s concerns.
So, with all that established, I’ll share my thoughts, and address the member’s questions.
Number one, should libraries be directing individuals to ResearchGate to ask authors for copies of their articles? Number two, should our document delivery service be providing copies of PDFs from ResearchGate to our library patrons?
Questions like this may be informed by law (and risk management), but must always start with ethics.
The ALA Statement of Ethics has very clear language regarding intellectual property: We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
When it comes to a source like ResearchGate—ostensibly trying to operate within the bounds of the law, but alleged to have a seamier side—the ALA’s further musings on this statement on copyright are also instructive:
Library workers are increasingly critical resources for copyright information in their communities. Consequently, they should be informed about copyright developments and maintain current awareness of all copyright issues. Library workers should develop a solid understanding of the law, its purpose, and the details relevant to library activities. This includes the ability to read, understand, and analyze various copyright scenarios, including fair use and other copyright limitations, using both good judgment and risk mitigation practices.
Library workers should use these skills to identify their rights and the rights of their users. Further, they should be ready to perform outreach surrounding copyright topics and refer users with questions pertaining to copyright to reliable resources. However, library workers should avoid providing legal advice. They may provide information about the law and copyright, but should recommend that patrons consult an attorney for legal advice. [emphasis added]
I can’t answer the member’s questions for any particular library. But based on the ALA Statement of Ethics, its further comments on copyright, and risk management principles drawn from the law, I can suggest a methodology for a library to apply when asking them.
First, if a librarian, using their own observations, and applying ALA ethics, believes a source to be dubious, it is clear that they are ethically obligated to “us[e] both good judgment and risk mitigation practices” about “relevant to library activities,” and to work with decision-makers at their institution to develop a clear position on that source.
This is not a simple nor easy exercise. Further (and frustratingly, for some) it may vary from institution to institution. Some libraries dance on the cutting edge of copyright. Others err on the side of caution. The decision to do either should be based on an informed assessment that considers the library’s mission, insurance, tolerance of risk, and its comfort level with the status quo.
The member is already applying personal experience and modeling this balancing. Remember the last part of the question: I am personally very hesitant to refer anyone to ResearchGate, as I find most faculty researchers are not aware of who truly holds the copyright to their published articles.
To that type of informed concern, there are two considerations I would add for libraries making this type of determination:
1) Under Section 108 of the Copyright Act, a library’s exemption from infringement can turn on their lack of awareness of a scheme to make exploitive commercial copies. Your library’s insurance may also deny coverage if a library is knowingly referring users to an infringer. So, if your institution is aware that a source is an infringer (which is different from suspecting a source is an infringer), that is a factor to balance.
2) On the flip side, libraries should not be willing (and generally have not been willing) to roll over to support the unchecked dominance of traditional commercial publishers. Without pushback, rates will continue to go up, while terms will get more onerous. But there is a difference between thoughtful pushback (like the current, organized fight against the McMillan Embargo), and systematic copyright infringement (like Napster).
Questions like this one show that librarians are thinking about the difference.
Thanks for a great question. It will be interesting to see if the case against ResearchGate goes the distance, and to see libraries decide where they stand.
 When this question first put the name in my brain, the “g” was lowercase.
 For over ten years, I was in-house counsel at a university, and had a reason to read “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” every week. Every year the Chronicle reported on one research-based scandal after another; it’s a miracle I didn’t hear the term “ResearchGate” before this!
 Am. Chem. Soc'y v. ResearchGate GmbH, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 98372, 2019 WL 2450976.
 Yes, this is one monster paragraph within the law suit.
As the member shows here, there are a lot of questions within the big issue of “contributory infringement” via use of the internet in libraries. And because they all relate to legal liability, they are scary for library staff and leadership.
To take the edge off that fear while defining “contributory infringement,” please enjoy this bad joke:
“Contributory infringer who?”
“Contributory infringer who is liable if, knowing of infringing activity, induces, causes or materially contributes to infringing conduct of another.”
Ouch. Sorry. I know that really wasn’t funny. I have been teaching knock-knock jokes to my 5-year-old daughter, and they are harder to write than you’d think.
But while the joke was bad, the definition was good. So, what is “contributory infringement?” All (bad) jokes aside, contributory infringement—when a person/entity aids to infringement—is a recipe for serious liability, with the contributor “jointly and severally” liable along with the main infringer.
And yes, as the quote from the MPLA says, unlicensed exhibitions of movies in a library can result in a finding of liability for the library. However…
The MPLA is representing an industry. This “warning” statement is a good example of an industry taking advantage of the complexity of the law to issue a statement that, unless carefully unpacked, will make the reader fear assertions that are grossly overbroad.
Deconstruct the statement. As the member fears, at a superficial level it seems to state that every copy of motion picture content accessed through a library’s wi-fi and played on any device might be a “contributory infringement” without a license. Ouch. That would be a recipe for disaster, indeed.
But this is a typical industry over-step. Fortunately, we fight such over-steps with information, and information is the librarian’s stock-in-trade.
Entire books, law journal articles, and Supreme Court opinions have been written on this topic, but I am going to focus on three bits of practical information that address the member’s concerns.
First, there are obviously sections of the Copyright Act that allow performances of audio-visual works in a library that would otherwise be infringing: Section 107, 108, and 110, depending on the circumstances (including the type of library) can all apply. I won’t unpack these sections here—the applications are too fact-specific—but let’s just say: “There are ways.”
Second, a user accessing content on a library computer may be doing so under their own personal license (Hulu being a possible example). There is no requirement in the Hulu license that a user access their personal Hulu account on a device they personally own; in other words, there is no concern if they access it on a library computer (so long as it is only for personal use). On the flip side, there is no permission from Hulu to use my personal account, via my personal computer, to show a movie to 20 unrelated people and charge admission. So, it’s not so much about the streaming, as what I do with it. This will vary from platform to platform, but the conditions of use will be in the license.
The third factor is the most important for this question, and is what the rest of this response is about, since it applies to the majority of the member’s hypothetical concerns.
To combat the fear that any re-posting or access to audio-visual copyrighted material via a library user account, website, database, or wi-fi connection is a potential infringement the library could be contributing to, every library should register under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), and have a policy for responding to reports of infringement.
Why? Because under the DMCA, service providers may avoid liability for copyright infringement that occurs "by reason of the storage at the direction of a user of material that resides on a system or network controlled or operated by or for the service provider." 
This arrangement allows services like news aggregators (think Huffington Post), content providers (think YouTube) and internet access providers (think Verizon) to function without performing a chilling gate-keeping function, giving them what’s called a “safe harbor” from contributory infringement.
To qualify for this “safe harbor,” a library must be ready to show that it:
(A) (i) does not have actual knowledge that the material or an activity using the material on the system or network is infringing;
(ii) in the absence of such actual knowledge, is not aware of facts or circumstances from which infringing activity is apparent; or
(iii) upon obtaining such knowledge or awareness, acts expeditiously to remove, or disable access to, the material;
(B) does not receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity, in a case in which the service provider has the right and ability to control such activity; and
(C) upon notification of claimed infringement . . ., responds expeditiously to remove, or disable access to, the material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of infringing activity.
So powerful is this “safe harbor,” that sites hosting infringing content are routinely found non-liable, so long as they designate a DMCA “agent” with the Copyright Office and meet the above elements, and can show they acted promptly when the agent was notified of alleged infringement.
Of course, any library considering this approach must do so with its eyes wide open. The DMCA is not beloved by libraries; the ALA has some choice criticism of the advantages the “notice and takedown” process gives content owners, and the rough road the process presents to fair use. Nevertheless, the DMCA remains a legal tool that addresses all of the member’s hypothetical concerns and solutions.
To illustrate, let’s run through the member’s examples a bit.
First, the member lists the different types of technology access and use that could be used as a basis for a claim of contributory infringement. The member is right to be concerned, because regardless of the ownership or type of device used in the library (library computer, or patron-owned device, phone, tablet, desktop computer), if an unlicensed movie is being shown at the library (with or without the use of library wi-fi), it runs the risk of being an infringing performance. But so long as the library is not aware of someone using the library’s wi-fi or website to show, post or share infringing content (or the use is not so flagrant that the library “should have known”), and the library meets the other elements listed above, DMCA “safe harbor” can apply.
Of course, this means the library must be able to show it does not have “actual knowledge” that an infringing performance is happening. If the library is hosting obviously infringing activity (like a person sitting on top of the reference desk ripping movies in plain view while singing “I am pirating a copy of “Lego Batman, hooray!”), “safe harbor” might not apply. But if the library is hosting someone quietly accessing a copy of “Lego Batman” on their personal computer (perhaps with a future fair use defense due to using the content in a documentary on deconstructing traditional notions of masculinity via comic-book-based animated children’s movies), and the library has no knowledge of the action, it would be tough to show “actual” knowledge.
NOTE: again, this tension, and the fact that what looks like infringement can often be a fair use, is one reason the ALA and others have an issue with the DMCA.
How does a library relying on the DMCA determine the line between genuine lack of awareness and what it “should know”? A library’s bar on using library resources for obvious and intentional copyright infringement should be in both its internet use policy, and its patron code of conduct. “Obvious and intentional” use of library resources to infringe copyright can include:
These examples all bring serious intellectual property concerns, and libraries must be positioned through policy to deal with them. But through a combination of the DMCA and respecting patron privacy, libraries do not need to consider blocking access or specifically restricting specific content to avoid contributory infringement.
It’s an imperfect balance, to be sure. The ALA and others are right to hold the line on concerns with the over-use of the “notice and takedown” provisions of the DMCA. But within that imperfect system is the secret to the member’s concerns.
The member’s final three questions are:
Does this mean that we have to block access to these sites or provide proactive messaging at each computer, and/or monitor their computer use?
Should messaging that addresses this issue be included in our wi-fi and/or computer use policy?
Is this something that if we provide computer screens or privacy walls we would reduce or eliminate our role as a contributory infringer?
The answers to these questions are:
Thank you for a good, complex question. For libraries that have not yet done so, a DMCA policy and registered agent are worth (very carefully) considering.
 Fair use, library-specific protections that apply to audio-visual news, charitable and educational exceptions.
 As of August 22, 2019!
 17 U.S.C. § 512(c)(1).
 If your library is part of an accredited educational institution and the movie is being shown as part of a class, check out the exceptions under Section 110 of the Copyright Act!
 Library IT staff and leadership may, of course, consider blocking or granting lesser priority to certain types of online traffic (access to WorldCat v. access to Blizzard, for instance), simply for utility’s sake. That is another topic beyond the scope of this response, but one I’d love to see a panel about.
 Higher education libraries, careful coordination with other operations may be needed on this, due to your institution’s obligations under 34 CFR 668.43, which does require certain warnings be given to students.