18 September 2019CopyrightSarah Morgan

Foundation hits back at Columbia University over encyclopedia ownership

A foundation established by the late historian Ehsan Yarshater has taken Columbia University to court, one month after the university sued the foundation over ownership of the Encyclopedia Iranica, a scholarly resource on Persian and Iranian history.

In August, New York-based Columbia accused the  Encyclopedia Iranica Foundation (EIF) of falsely claiming to be the copyright and trademark owner of the Encyclopedia Iranica.

Late last week, EIF responded with a lawsuit of its own, filed at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, which claimed that Columbia’s complaint “misstates the facts and lacks merit”.

Columbia, director of the Eshan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies at Columbia University Elton Daniel and publishing firm Brill were named as defendants in the suit.

Late historian Yarshater began teaching at Columbia in 1958 and, ten years later, founded the Center for Iranian Studies.

In 1972, Yarshater began work on a Persian encyclopedia of Islam in 1972, a precursor to the Encyclopedia Iranica, which he started to work on seven years later.

According to Columbia’s claim, EIF began to list itself as the ‘claimant’ on copyright registration filings for the work starting with volume 11 in 2003.

“The university filed its suit shortly after the foundation rightly asserted its legal ownership to the copyright in the Encyclopedia, to the trademark in the Encyclopedia Iranica name, and to,” said EIF’s claim, filed on Friday, September 13.

According to EIF, since the foundation’s inception, it has legally owned the Encyclopedia’s IP and has contributed more than $40 million to Columbia University for its production and publication.

Financial independence and accountability

Elton Daniel, a highly-regarded scholar of Middle Eastern and Islamic History, was appointed in January 2017 as the current director of the Center and, until recently, as editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Iranica.

Columbia claimed that, at the beginning of Daniel’s term, the Persian Heritage Foundation (a fund set up by Yarshater) was undergoing an internal reorganisation and was temporarily unable to provide funding to the Center.

This left EIF as a principal source of the Center’s funding and the increased reliance on EIF “gave rise to problems almost immediately”, according to Columbia.

EIF allegedly insisted that none of the Center’s funding could be used for any Center activity other than the Encyclopedia Iranica, before cutting funding to the Center later that year.

“Columbia investigated the recent history of the work and determined that defendant had, beginning in 2015 and without informing Columbia, unilaterally changed the copyright assignment forms that individual scholars signed when submitting contributions to the [Encyclopedia Iranica],” said the university.

The foundation tells a different story—according to EIF, Daniel had allegedly “spearheaded” a campaign to force the foundation to endow the Center, which would “ensure financial independence from the foundation with no accountability”.

According to EIF, Columbia retaliated to the foundation’s decision not to endow by denying EIF access to its collection of artwork and books, as well as documents and financial records.

EIF went on to allege that Columbia’s complaint is an attempt to “further coerce” the foundation into relinquishing its IP, so that the university can consummate a contract with Brill for the print and online distribution of the Encyclopædia.

The foundation deemed this a “misappropriation of more than forty years of academically renowned work to which it has not made a single contribution”.

The EIF said that it doesn’t intend to allow the university to “bully it into walking away from the Encyclopedia”.

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More on this story

12 August 2019   New York-based Columbia University has accused a company established by late historian Ehsan Yarshater of falsely claiming to be the copyright owner of the Encyclopedia Iranica, a scholarly resource on Persian and Iranian history.
4 August 2020   A non-profit organisation has won a temporary restraining order barring the Columbia University from publishing copies of the Encyclopaedia Iranica resource.