Thousands of university students march to photocopy textbooks

A.M. Costa Rica/Aaron Knapp
Young woman holds a sign that characterized marches as terrorists, criminals, students and aware.

Thousands of students marched from the University of Costa Rica to the legislature Tuesday morning to support a measure that will ease the penalties for copyright infringement.

Their objective was to convince lawmakers to override a President Laura Chinchilla veto. The president rejected a bill that would no longer allow prison sentences for violations of intellectual property law.

Students said that the bill will penalize photocopying services and cut into students’ ability to copy parts of books instead of buying them.

“Illegalizing copying books is privatizing access to education,” said Christian Gómez, a psychology student at the Universidad de Costa Rica and an organizer of the march. “I refuse to live in a country where it’s easier to get a weapon than it is to copy a book.”

When they arrived at the legislature, the students packed into the surrounding two city blocks. Organizers used trucks with microphones and amplifiers from either end of the crowd, where student leaders and some lawmakers addressed the protesters.

“Intellectual property rights cannot be over the rights of the students,” said Juan Carlos Mendoza in an interview after he addressed the crowd. “There can be balance between the rights of the students and the rights of authors.” He is the former president of the Asamblea Legislative and a possible presidential candidate.

Other legislators, including Claudio Monge Pereira of the Partido Acción Ciudadana and José Maria Villalta of Frente Amplio, were more incendiary in their speeches to the crowd.

“This is a fight for education,” said Villalta in a speech to the crowd. Later Monge and Villalta needed to calm the crowd when some students grew restless and began throwing stones, according to a tweet from the legislative assembly.

“I participated in the protest, but I did not ask them to throw stones,” said Villalta in another tweet.

The Partido Liberación Nacional, the party of President Chinchilla, later issued a criticism of Villalta in which they asked him not to use his job to call for violence, and cause disorder and civil disobedience. Some students had tried to invade the legislative building.

No one has ever been punished in this country for photocopying texts, and the right to copy material for education has existed and will exist, the party statement said.

Gómez said that the demonstration had a deeper level of meaning for him and many others gathered in the crowd who protested against the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which stipulated that Costa Rica improve its intellectual property laws and protections.

By a slim margin, Costa Ricans approved the treaty in a referendum. The protest was five years and a day after that referendum.

“The people who fought back then are still struggling because we believe in a more fair country,” said Gómez.

The bill will be republished in La Gaceta official newspaper because of the the veto late last month. Then the bill goes to the assembly’s legal affairs commission. After that, it may go back to the assembly. Votes from two-thirds or 38 lawmakers are needed to override the president’s veto.

The assembly has 30 days to do this, but lawmakers can ask for as many 30-day extensions as they need.

The march still drew between 1,000 and 2,000 students to a processional that easily filled all lanes of Avenida Central and stretched at least four blocks. Some students said they were attending the march because they saw an announcement on a Facebook event page.

Despite reassurances, students still worry that the law will force them to buy books instead of getting cheaper photocopies.

“When you lack money, it is not possible to access the texts in another form,” said Diana Carrillo, a Universidad de Costa Rica student who participated in the march.

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