The American Chemical Society (ACS) has won a lawsuit against the pirate research-paper website Sci-Hub, over the site’s illicit use and dissemination of ACS articles.

On 3 November, a US court ordered Sci-Hub's operators to pay the ACS US$4.8 million in damages for copyright infringement and trademark violation. Sci-Hub’s owners did not appear in court to present their case.

The judge also ordered that any party “in active concert or participation” with Sci-Hub should “cease facilitating” access to the repository. This means that the ACS could request Internet services including web providers, search engines and domain-name registrars to stop linking or to block access to Sci-Hub and the various domains it is hosted under.

Which services might be approached by the ACS isn’t yet clear: the meaning of the phrase “in active concert or participation with” is open to legal interpretation, says Michael Carroll, an information-justice and intellectual-property specialist at the American University Washington College of Law in Washington, DC.

There are no clear standards as to when an Internet service is in “active concert” with a pirate website, says Carroll. A user merely resolving a domain-name request to such a site, for example, does not yet qualify as active participation, he adds.

Such an order by a US court is exceptional, Carroll says. “In general, our federal courts do not have the power to issue orders against people or entities that were not part of the lawsuit.” But he adds that US federal rules for civil procedures such as this do sometimes allow injunctions against persons who are in ‘active participation’ with an enjoined party. The current lawsuit is an example of that, he says.

The ruling is another legal blow for Sci-Hub, which provides free access to millions of paywalled research papers and is popular with researchers around the world. In June, a New York court granted the Dutch publisher Elsevier $15 million in damages from the site for large-scale copyright infringement.

But publishers are unlikely to see any money from Sci-Hub because its chief operator lives outside the United States. Alexandra Elbakyan, a former neuroscientist who created the portal in 2011, says the court order is an example of censorship.

The ACS, which filed its lawsuit in June in a Virginia court, said in a statement on 6 November that the ruling was “a victory for copyright law and the entire publishing enterprise”. An analysis published in August estimated that as of March 2017, Sci-Hub’s database contained 69% of the world’s roughly 81.6 million scholarly articles — and 98.8% of the ACS’s journal content.

The ACS says that it will now seek to enforce the court’s order. Asked for comment, the society referred Nature’s news team to its statement. But Internet service providers are expected to resist what they may perceive as undue censorship.

Attempts to stop people visiting Sci-Hub face another hurdle, too: the site has an alternative address that can be reached by users of the Tor network, a group of servers that encrypts Internet traffic and disguises its origins. No Internet provider can easily block access to such sites.