A legal dispute between an Ivy League university and a foundation in New York has endangered the future of one of the most important academic projects on Iranian civilization.
The project is an encyclopedia that has been assembled and published at Columbia University for decades.
At the center of the copyright and trademark lawsuit are Columbia University, the editor in chief of Encyclopædia Iranica, a foundation in the U.S., and a publishing house in the Netherlands. Millions of dollars of endowment and a prestigious, unique project are at stake.
This case revolves around the Encyclopædia Iranica, which is the only comprehensive English language encyclopedia that covers Iranian Civilization from prehistory through to modern time.
In praise of Iranica
Iranica is the legacy of Persian scholar Ehsan Yarshater.
He founded the Center for Iranian Studies at Columbia University in 1968; the center changed its name later to The Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies. He dedicated his life to creating the Encyclopædia Iranica, a project which he began in 1973. The first volume was published in 1981, and over the course of four decades, thousands of international scholars have contributed to assembling Encyclopædia Iranica.
Abbas Amanat, a professor of history and director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies, has written dozens of fascicles for the Encyclopædia Iranica since the early 1980s. Professor Amanat describes Iranica as one of the most outstanding academic projects about Iran:
“Encyclopædia Iranica is the most comprehensive work of reference, and no doubt one of the greatest academic projects that has ever been produced about Iran, Persian culture, and the greater Persianate world stretching from the Balkans and Mesopotamia to South Asia and East Asia. Its historical span from ancient to modern, its balanced scholarly approach, and the contribution of hundreds of specialists worldwide makes it a unique project and a great service toward global recognition of all aspects of Iranian culture and history.”
Approximately 7,100 articles have been published in print or online in the Encyclopædia Iranica since its inception over four decades ago. Including cross-references, there are more than 9,000 entries.
Iranica is lauded by scholars and recognized internationally by several professional organizations, including the American Council of Learned Societies and the Union Académique Internationale in the European Union, which endorses Iranica as one of the “basic long-term international research projects.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) financially supported the Encyclopædia from 1979 to 2016, which is longer than any other project.
Richard Nelson Frye of Harvard University, who scholars refer to as “dean of the world’s Iranists” describes Iranica in the Journal of the American Oriental Society as “a real tour de force.” He goes on to say: “There is no project in the entire Middle Eastern field more worthy of support than the Encyclopædia Iranica.”
Iranica at the Center of a Legal Battle
In October 2020, a Manhattan court denied the Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation’s request to stop Columbia University from publishing Iranica.
It was part of a legal battle and two lawsuits: Columbia University vs. Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation and Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation vs. Columbia University. Both cases revolve around the intellectual property of Iranica.
In 1990 Professor Yarshater established the Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation (EIF) to ensure the continuation of this comprehensive scholarly work. He was the foundation’s president until his death in 2018. The Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation claims the ownership of the copyright and trademark of “Encyclopædia Iranica.”
Ramine Rouhani, Chair of the EIF board, told Zamaneh that the battle has just begun: “We are in the first stages of this legal battle, the judge ruling results to Columbia University and Brill could continue their work until the final verdict,” Rouhani said.
However, the core of the legal dispute is ahead of us.” Rouhani said.
Yarshater died in California in September 2018 at the age of 98, and the legal battle over Iranica copyright started after his death.
The first lawsuit was filed in August 2019, when Columbia University requested that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York rule that the university owns the copyright of Encyclopædia Iranica. In its lawsuit, Columbia accused EIF of interfering with its business.
The second lawsuit was filed one month later. In September 2019, the EIF accused Columbia University of infringing upon Iranica’s copyright and misusing their trademarks. The foundation also accused Columbia University of refusing to return Yarshater artwork and books, which were located in the Yarshater Center.
A year later, in July 2020, the court granted the EIF a temporary restraining order to prevent Columbia from using the Encyclopædia Iranica name in connection with its publications. As a result, Columbia University had to stop publishing fascicle 6 of Volume XVI of the Encyclopædia Iranica. The restraining order was lifted later, in October 2020.
A Columbia University spokesperson told Zamaneh:
“We are pleased that the foundation’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop our publication of fascicle six of Volume XVI of the Encyclopædia Iranica was denied and that we are looking forward to continuing to produce and publish this important scholarly work.”
This spokesperson did not answer Zamaneh’s other questions concerning what this ruling means for the ownership of Iranica’s copyright by Columbia University and for the future of Iranica.
Zamaneh posed the same question about the ownership of Iranica’s copyright to the Chair of the Board of the EIF, Rouhani. “The court has not ruled on this matter at all,” Rouhani said.
The order of Judge Analisa Torres on October 8, 2020, stated:
“The evidence presented at the hearing compels the finding that Yarshater founded EIF to serve as a funding vehicle for the Encyclopædia, not as the transferee of its intellectual property.”
Dr. Elizabeth Townsend Gard, Professor of Law, Tulane University Law School, describes this action as a keen move saying: “Interestingly, they focus on the use of the trademark (and counterfeit). Columbia as a landlord.” She added:” preliminary injunctions are part of Intellectual Property, especially when one party is trying to do something while the lawsuit is taking place.”
From Judge Torres’s order, it seems that the EIF might have little basis for claiming ownership of the Encyclopædia Iranica trademark.
“As far as I can say, the recent ruling by the New York court not only grants the Yarshater Center at Columbia University the right to publish Encyclopædia Iranica but by implication views Columbia as the legitimate holder of Iranica’s copyright. This is an important turning point for Iranica’s editors, contributors, supporters, and well-wishers for it assures continuity and high scholarly quality under the present arrangement.” Professor Amanat told Zamaneh.
An Expensive Lawsuit in Manhattan
The legal battle over Iranica has been ongoing since 2019 and will likely continue into the future. Legal actions in the U.S. can prove costly. A copyright attorney in New York or Washington, D.C. may charge between 200 up to 1000 dollars hourly. The longer a legal battle continues, the more expensive it becomes, and the Iranica litigation is no exception.
A copyright lawyer told Zamaneh that a typical lawsuit like the EIF vs. Columbia could cost between 500,000 and 2 million USD.
A source told us that Columbia University is relying on their in-house legal office, and the expense of the lawsuit is not being taken from money that has been donated to Iranica.
On the other hand, it appears that funding for the case of EIF vs. Columbia University is coming from money previously donated to the foundation for Iranica’s development.
Zamaneh asked Rouhani, how much the foundation has spent so far on this lawsuit and the source of this funding. He replied:
“The foundation is confronting two strong organizations: Brill Publishing House and Columbia University. However, regarding our resources, we have put aside enough money to continue this to the end and are standing [up to] Columbia and Brill’s bullying.”
Rouhani did not answer Zamaneh’s question about the exact amount that they have spent on the lawsuit. He did add that the foundation is spending its resources in accordance with its rules, and their mission statement clearly says that they must defend the integrity of Iranica.
Khosrow Semnani, a philanthropist and former Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Encyclopædia Iranica at Columbia University, is one of the hundreds of donors contributing to the Iranica project. Semnani and his family’s foundation have contributed over $2 million to Iranica.
“I donated to Iranica towards the benefit of [its] objective and main purpose, which is the publishing of Iranica,” Semnani told Zamaneh.
When asked about his feelings if the money he has donated goes toward the legal expenses, Semnani answered: “Continuing the project and development of Iranica is what I hoped for and the reason for these contributions.”
He added that he sincerely hopes that Iranica will once again focus on its original mission of providing invaluable academic research, documentation, and contribution to Iranian culture and heritage.
Future of Iranica
In the shadow of the two lawsuits and damaged relationship between the EIF’s board and Columbia University, the prospect for future cooperation between the EIF and the Yarshater Center is unclear.
Based on the 2018 EIF Annual Report, its assets amount to about 20 million USD. If the EIF decides to stop financially contributing to the Yarshater Center, what will happen to these funds?
Ramine Rouhani told Zamaneh that, whilst he does not rule out the possibility of future cooperation between EIF and the Yarshater Center entirely, he believes that it is highly unlikely.
“Regarding its work for distribution and development of Iranica, [the foundation] will work with research institutions and universities,” Rouhani said. Rouhani also claims that in recent years Columbia University has been falling behind in the field of Iranian studies when compared to other leading universities in North America and Europe. He mentioned the University of Toronto, University of Maryland, Princeton University, and Yale University as examples of institutions with stronger Iranian studies programs than Columbia University.
Columbia University, an ivy league university, has one of the oldest traditions of Iranian Studies in the United States, dating back to 1895 when A.V.W. Jackson was appointed professor of Indo-Iranian languages. Professor Yarshater began and conducted the work on the Encyclopædia at Columbia, and the Columbia reputation was critical for attracting funding and enhancing the prestige of the project. Yarshater, Columbia, and the Encyclopædia have been intertwined for over 40 years, but the board of EIF, according to the board’s chair, they not see this as being important for the continuing relationship in the future. “It is not like because Iranica started in Columbia, it must [end at] Columbia,” Rouhani told Zamaneh.