The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has awarded STM publisher Elsevier $15 million in damages in a copyright infringement judgement against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, online repositories that provide illegal access to millions of pirated scientific documents.

The court’s June 21 ruling awarded Elsevier the maximum penalty for copyright infringement. However, because Sci-Hub and Library Genesis are known to use varying domain names and IP addresses, it is unlikely that Elsevier will ever collect the judgement. While the bulk of the illegally acquired documents have been shown to be from Elsevier, infringed materials from such publishers as Springer-Nature and Wiley Blackwell were cited in the case.

A statement issued by the Association for American Publishers on the judgement said: “For years, Sci-Hub illegally accessed the secure computer networks of a large number of major universities by, among other methods, hijacking 'proxy' credentials, and compromising some 51 million protected works. Yesterday’s decision confirms Elsevier’s right to seek just restitution for the infringements it has suffered, and gives hope to the many smaller publishers, scientific societies, and authors who navigate bad actors on a daily basis.”

The district court ruling follows a 2015 preliminary injunction against Sci-Hub and Library Genesis that suspended their use of U.S. domain names, in an effort to shut down both sites. Despite the earlier injunction, the two sites continue to operate. Founded in 2011 by former neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, Sci-Hub, and a related site, Library Genesis, claim to provide universal access to copyright protected scientific information behind the paywalls of academic libraries and scholarly journals.

However, both sites use a variety of illegally acquired online access tools (often secured by “phishing” or surreptitiously harvesting passwords to online libraries) to procure a wide variety of copyright protected documents without permission or payment. Both sites generate revenue by requesting donations from users.

Maria A. Pallante, president and CEO of AAP, said the ruling shows that "the Court has not mistaken illegal activity for a public good. On the contrary, it has recognized the defendants’ operation for the flagrant and sweeping infringement that it really is and affirmed the critical role of copyright law in furthering scientific research and the public interest.”