Monday, April 06, 2009

Persecution for sharing knowledge

Copyright laws came into being in the face of the arrival of printing technology. The intension behind bringing the law was to allow authors to benefit financially from their work. The idea was that this would encourage creative people to create more so that society would benefit. But now things have changed without people even noticing the change. Now copyright often benefit publishers, rather than creators. And they would go to any extent to ensure that no one uses the material without their permission, without paying them, even if the result benefits society. The latest instance is one from Argentina, where a Professor of Philosophy is being dragged through courts because he dared to put Spanish translations of the works of the philosopher Derrida. It doesn't matter to them that Spanish translations are not available. The site has apparently been used by millions before the material was taken out. Here is a report by CopySouth:

*Argentinean professor charged criminally for promoting access to knowledge*

By the CopySouth Research Group

A philosophy professor in Argentina, Horacio Potel, is facing criminal charges for maintaining a website devoted to translations of works by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. His alleged crime: copyright infringement. Here is Professor Potel’s sad story.

“I was fascinated at the unlimited possibilities offered by the internet for knowledge exchange”, explains Horacio Potel, a Professor of Philosophy at the Universidad Nacional de Lanús <> in Buenos Aires. In 1999, he set up a personal website to collect essays and other works of some well-known philosophers, starting with the German Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Potel’s websites – *Nietzsche in Spanish <>*, *Heidegger in Spanish<> * and *Derrida in Spanish <>* – eventually developed into growing online libraries of freely downloadable philosophical texts. *Nietzsche in Spanish <>* alone has already received more than four million visitors.

* *One of Potel’s best known websites, focused on his favourite French philosopher, Algerian-born Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) <>, who was the founder of “deconstruction”. On this website Potel posted many of the philosopher’s works, translated into Spanish, as well as discussion forums, research results, biographies, images and the usual pieces of information typical of this type of online resource. "I wanted to share my love for philosophy with other people. The idea was disseminating the texts and giving them some sort of arrangement" declares Potel.

To Potel, what he was doing was what professors have done for centuries: helping students to get access to knowledge. “It is not possible to find the same comprehensive collection of works that was available at Derrida’s and Heidegger’s websites either in libraries or in bookstores in Argentina”, says Potel. In fact, only two bookstores in Argentina’s largest city, Buenos Aires, carry some books by Derrida and many of his works are seldom available to readers. Potel spent decades visiting libraries and bookstores to collect the material he posted on his online library. “Many of those texts are already out of print”, he says. Books that are out of print cannot be purchased, but they are often still protected by copyright laws.

Furthermore, Potel finds the prices charged by foreign publishers, such as the Mexican companies Porrua <>and Cal y Arena <>, “prohibitive” by Argentinean standards. He gives as an example the price of a recently published booklet of a conference given by Derrida. Printed in large typeface, the booklet has about eighty pages, although the text would certainly fit in twelve. It was being sold for 162 Argentinean pesos, around 42 US dollars at current exchange rates. Even at that steep price copies were very hard to find within two weeks after they arrived in Argentina. Potel relates how he had to walk around Buenos Aires for an entire afternoon in order to find a single copy of the booklet.

But the price of foreign books is not the only concern in this case. For Derrida’s works to be accessible to the Spanish-speaking world they have to be translated. While the Spanish versions of the texts available on the website were not done by him, Potel made corrections to a few of them, since some of Derrida’s Spanish language books have been quite poorly translated. To make the texts easier to understand for readers, Potel also linked each translation to the original text, as well as to other works cited by Derrida.

Eventually, Potel’s popular website caught the attention of a publisher. A criminal case against Potel was initiated on December 31, 2008 after a complaint was lodged by a French company, the publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit <>. They have published only one of Derrida’s books and it was in French. Minuit’s complaint was passed on to the French Embassy in Argentina and it became the basis of the Argentina Book Chamber <>’s legal action against Potel.

The Argentina Book Chamber <> boasts of its doubtful precedents of having been responsible for a police raid at the Faculty of Arts and Letters of the University of Buenos Aires and for having managed to condemn some professors for encouraging the students to photocopy books and articles. “The view of the police entering the Puán building is remembered with astonishment by many members of the academic community” says a report. The next possible effects of the legal action against Potel are the wiretapping of his phone line, the interception of his email accounts and an incursion into his house to “determine the actual place where the illegal act occurred”.

Potel has already removed all the content from his website, a decision which he regards as a tragedy. “These websites are my best work. They are the result of many hours of work and have been entirely funded by me”, he says. Those who access today find a warning: “This website has been taken down due to a legal action initiated by the Argentina Book Chamber”. Potel insists that he “never intended to make a profit” out of Derrida’s works. Yet he faces a possible criminal sentence of one month up to six years in prison for violation of Argentina’s intellectual property laws, according to a February 28, 2009 story <> by the online version of Argentina's largest newspaper, Clarín <>.

If Derrida was alive, he would probably be thanking Potel for bringing translations of his texts to millions of Spanish-speaking readers, who otherwise would never have had the opportunity to read the works of the French philosopher. Here’s what the founder of deconstruction said about freedom within the university:

“And yet I maintain that the idea of this space of the academic type has to be symbolically protected by a kind of absolute immunity, as if its interior were inviolable; I believe (this is like a profession of faith which I address to you and submit to your judgment) that this is an idea that we must reaffirm, declare, and profess endlessly. [...] This freedom of immunity of the university and *par excellence* of its Humanities is something to which we must lay claim, while committing ourselves to it with all our might. Not only in a verbal and declaratory fashion, but in work, in act and in what we make happen with events.” (Jacques Derrida, “The University Without Condition” in *Without Alibi*, ed. & trans. by Peggy Kamuf, Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 210)

Those who profess to “protect” Derrida’s “intellectual property rights” are now persecuting a professor who is simply following the French philosopher’s teachings and popularising them in the Spanish-speaking world.

The CopySouth Research Group calls on the Argentina Book Chamber <> and the government of Argentina to drop these criminal charges immediately and to respect and protect professor Potel’s academic freedom in providing popular access to philosophical works. In any conflict between intellectual property and the right to education and to access knowledge, we choose education and we urge those who share the same concerns to spread the word widely and rapidly.

You can send letters to Les Éditions de Minuit <> (7 Rue Bernard
Palissy, 75006 Paris 06, France, email:, the Argentina Book Chamber <> (Av. Belgrano 1580, Piso 4, C1093AAQ Buenos Aires, Argentina, email: and the Argentina Federal Council of Education <> (Pizzurno 935, P.B. of. 5, C1020ACA Buenos Aires, Argentina, email:

30 March 2009

The CopySouth Research Group

(I wish to thank Prof. Subbiah Arunachalam for sending me this report.)