Tuesday, April 12, 2016

An Open Letter to Michael Coogan

Over four years ago, I submitted two chapters to the Iron I volume of the “Final Reports of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon” series. With the caterpillar creep of publication, I just recently received the proofs for my submissions, along with legal forms to transfer copyright of the chapters and a note from the Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum (which is publishing the volume with Eisenbrauns), Michael Coogan.

In those four intervening years, the Harvard Semitic Museum had stolen my co-authored contributions to Ashkelon 5 (as I discussed here). So, when I received the package from the Semitic Museum, I was impressed by the (for lack of a better word) chutzpah of the Museum for writing to me after the theft of my work as if nothing had happened. It was also strange to be addressed by my first name, especially from an individual I did not know personally and had only met once. And, above all, for Dr. Coogan to describe the Museum’s obligations under federal copyright law in such a cavalier manner.

Don’t be alarmed at the formality of the enclosed letters – it is essentially boilerplate that the University Counsel has recommended that we request from all authors and contributors to our publications.

I felt it necessary to write a letter to Dr. Coogan, cc’ing the Director of the Museum, Peter Der Manuelian. I include a copy of that letter below:

Dear Dr. Coogan,

I am writing in response to your letter of March 23. Please let me provide some background to my comments, in case you are not aware: I was the co-author of Ashkelon 5, but the Semitic Museum falsely claimed ownership of my work, published it after I had withdrawn my permission, and knowingly passed much of my authored work off as Yaakov Huster’s. All of this happened despite several assurances from Deputy Director and Curator Joseph Greene that the volume would not be published while there was an ownership dispute and that my work would be properly credited.

It is good to see that the Museum is now trying to obtain permission to publish work properly and to have authors sign transfer of copyright agreements. But the Semitic Museum has been publishing the final report series of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon for a decade – why is it only now beginning to treat authors properly? U.S. copyright law is very clear on this matter:

A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner's duly authorized agent. (17 U.S. Code 204a)

And yet, though I was never asked to transfer copyright and signed no form, I have found that Harvard claims to own the copyright of my contributions to Ashkelon 1 and 3 and to Ashkelon 4, a work solely authored by me. In fact, it is my understanding (based on conversations with Deputy Director Greene) that these current efforts to obtain permission are being made only because of my unsuccessful attempts to stop the theft of my intellectual property in Ashkelon 5.

I am therefore especially interested in your statement that the enclosed forms are “boilerplate that the University Counsel has recommended” you request. Do you mean to suggest that the Museum considers the requirements of U.S. copyright law to be “boilerplate” that is merely “recommended” by its lawyers?

Given my own experiences and the Museum’s unacceptable treatment of authors in general over the last decade, I cannot possibly grant permission for my work to be published or transfer ownership of copyright. As I retain the rights of ownership, I will consider any further attempt by the Museum to publish my work to be infringement of my copyright and violation of the law. Please be aware that, because from what I have seen the Museum has not been committed to federal law, signed contracts, or its other agreements on these matters in the past, I am posting a version of this letter online so that there is public record of my denial of permission.

Michael Press, Ph.D.

* * * * *

My experiences suggest that academics might not be very familiar with or even care much about copyrights. Perhaps this is because most academic copyrights have so little (monetary) value. Notably, many academics are openly hostile towards copyright law. We are sympathetic toward attempts to undermine the power of publishers’ copyrights and distribute academic work more freelyBut we should not be so quick to dismiss copyright law altogether: it provides what little protection there is for academics against theft of their work. I encourage scholars to familiarize themselves with the relevant federal law: Title 17 of the United States Code, Circular 92, Chapter 2Academics, especially junior scholars – the most vulnerable among us to exploitation – should be aware of the situation and of their legal rights.

At the same time, we should be clear-eyed about the realistic value of a copyright in academia. Few scholars have the tens of thousands of dollars that would likely be needed to take such a case to court. What this means is that, if people really want to steal your academic work, there is virtually nothing to stop them.

Virtually nothing. The one means we have left is professional pressure. Our professional organizations have ethics policies, we can choose with whom we want to collaborate, and so on. This is why I am ultimately disappointed to academic reaction to cases of exploitation and abuse. Indifference means that these activities will continue – why not, when there is no motivation to stop them?

Take note, academics: When you do not take action or speak up against abuses, you are allowing these problems to continue. And you are failing your students.

UPDATE (May 24): I recently received a letter from the Semitic Museum confirming that my manuscripts had been removed from their publication files and that my chapters had been assigned to other scholars. It was disappointing not to see any reference to the fact that they stole my work, but this was to be expected. But more than that, reading this letter has underlined that I no longer have any ties to Ashkelon Excavations. The end of a (very bittersweet) era. 


Anonymous said...

Good for you Michael. Excellent blog!

Oliver J. said...

How disappointing to read of your experiences with certain academics and a highly respected university. However, on second thought I’m not really surprised this travesty has occurred in your instance and appears to be an underlying theme in the academic world in general. Continue to shine the light of truth on the thievery of authorship on the part of those with little moral backbone. I'm sure many others join me in applauding your action and success in this matter.