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Columbia University and Encyclopedia Foundation Continue Faceoff

Both Sides Claim the Legacy and Intellectual Property Rights Associated with the Encyclopaedia Iranica

On August 26, 2019, we reported on a suit filed by Columbia University ("Columbia") against the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation ("EIF"). The Complaint concerns the Encyclopaedia Iranica (the "Encyclopedia"), a well-regarded publication on Persian and Iranian history that was started in the late '70s by Professor Ehsan Yarshater ("Yarshater"). Yarshater was a professor at Columbia as well as the director of Columbia's Center for Iranian Studies. The complaint alleged that EIF was originally formed in 1990 to raise funds for the Encyclopedia, but that in recent years following Yarshater's death, EIF has attempted to seize control of the Encyclopedia and the websites, publishing contracts, copyrights, and trademarks associated with it.

Photo by Jack Pierce from Pixabay

In its original Complaint, Columbia sought only attorney's fees and injunctive and equitable relief. However, in its Amended Complaint, filed on October 31, 2019, Columbia added further details and also further allegations concerning EIF's online use of Columbia-owned articles. A claim for damages and equitable relief was added in connection with these further allegations.

Although EIF has not filed a formal Answer, the months since the filing of the Amended Complaint have given rise to various motions and declarations in support of and in opposition to preliminary grants of relief. Most recently, following a hearing, both parties have filed briefs addressing EIF's request for a preliminary injunction on the trademark issue.

Columbia asserts that it has been using the Encyclopedia's trademarks since 1982, before EIF was even created, and that the work done by Yarshater and others on the Encyclopedia was within the scope of their employment with the university. Columbia claims that EIF's main role was fundraising, not oversight of the Encyclopedia, and that it was not the primary provider of funding for the enterprise.

EIF, on the other hand, asserts that Yarshater's work on the Encyclopedia was independent from the University, that EIF is the successor-in-interest to the intellectual property rights created by that work, and that EIF paid Yarshater and others for that work. EIF claims that its trademark registration affirms its ownership, and that the prior use claimed by Columbia is erroneous. On this basis, EIF claims that Columbia is currently stealing and counterfeiting content by using the marks.

It remains to be seen which side's arguments will be most persuasive to the court and whether the preliminary injunction will be granted or not.