Encyclopedia Iranica “A real tour de force” is in Peril

Zamaneh Media
9 min readDec 28, 2020


by Mahtab Divsalar — 24December 2020

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: Encyclopedia Iranica.

Ehsan Yarshater

The project is an encyclopedia that has been assembled and published at Columbia University for decades.

Encyclopaedia Iranica

Columbia University in the City of New York,, the Editor in Chief ofEncyclopedia Iranica , a foundation in the United Statesand a publishing house in the Netherlands are in the center of a copyright and trademark lawsuit. Millions of dollars of endowment and a prestigious, unique project are at stake.

The case revolves around the “Encyclopedia of 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 academic scholar Ehsan Yarshater. A historian and linguist by training, Yarshater founded the Center for Iranian Studies at Columbia University, New York in 1968.
The center changed its name later to the Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies. He dedicated his life to creating the Encyclopedia that would cover anything Iranian studies related — a comprehensive reference for Iranology. Yarshater began to physically publish Encyclopaedia Iranica in 1973. The first volume became available in 1981. In more than four decades, a team of hundreds of scholars from all over the world contributed to assembling an initiative that Yarshater started.

Abbas Amanat, professor of History and the Director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies, has written dozens of fascicles for the Encyclopedia Iranica since the early 80s. Professor Amanat describes Iranica as one of the most outstanding academic projects about Iran.

Abbas Amanat

“Encyclopaedia Iranica is the most comprehensive work of reference, and no doubt one of the greatest academic projects that have 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 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 Encyclopedia of Iranica after four decades. If one includes cross-reference, the total of entries would be over 9,000.

Iranica is praised by scholars and recognized internationally by several professional organizations, including the American Council of Learned Societies and the Union Académique Internationale in the E.U., which endorses Iranica as one of the “basic long-term international research projects.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) supported the Encyclopaedia financially from 1979 to 2016, longer than any other project.

Richard Nelson Frye of Harvard University, who has been referred to by scholars as “dean of the world’s Iranists in Journal of the American Oriental Society, describes Iranica: “A real tour de force. There is no project in the entire Middle Eastern field more worthy of support than the Encyclopaedia Iranica.”

Iranica at the Center of a Legal Battle

In October 2020, a Manhattan court denied the Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation’s request to stop Columbia University from publishing Iranica.

It was part of a legal battle and two lawsuits: Columbia University vs. Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation (EIF) and Encyclopaedia Iranica Foundation vs. Columbia University. The cases revolve around the intellectual property of Iranica.

Ehsan Yarshater

In 1990, Professor Yarshater established the Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation to ensure the continuation of this comprehensive scholarly work. He was the Foundation’s President until he died in 2018. The Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation claims the ownership of the copyright and trademark of “Encyclopædia Iranica.”

Ramine Rouhani, chair of the board of Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation (EIF), told Zamaneh that the battle has just begun.

“We are in the first stages of this legal dispute. The latest ruling of the judge is for Columbia University and Brill Publishers to continue their work while the case proceeds further and until the final verdict. However, the core of the legal dispute is ahead of us.” Rouhani said.

Ramine Rouhani, chair of the board of Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation

Yarshater died in California in September 2018 at the age of 98, and the legal battle over the Iranica copyright started after his death.

The first lawsuit was filed in August 2019 through which Columbia University asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to rule that Columbia owns the copyright of Encyclopedia of Iranica.

In its lawsuit, Columbia accused EIF of interfering with its business.
The second lawsuit was filed a month later. In September 2019, the EIF accused Columbia university of infringing Iranica’s copyrights and misusing their trademarks. The EIF also accused Columbia University of refusing to return Yarshater artworks 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 “Encyclopaedia Iranica” name connected with its publications. As a result, Columbia University had to stop publishing facsimile 6 of Volume XVI of the Encyclopaedia of 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 6 of Volume XVI of the Encyclopaedia Iranica was denied and that we are looking forward to continuing to produce and publish this important scholarly work.”

The Columbia spokesperson did not answer Zamaneh’s other questions concerning what this ruling means for the ownership of Iranica’s copyright by Columbia University and the future of Iranica.

Zamaneh asked the same question about the ownership of Iranica’s copyright from the chair of the board of the EIF.

“The court has not ruled on this matter at all,” Ramine Rouhani said.

The order of the judge Analisa Torres that was dated on October 8, 2020, states:

“The evidence presented at the hearing compels the finding that Yarshater founded EIF to serve as a funding vehicle for the Encyclopaedia, 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 “trademark” Encyclopaedia Iranica.

“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 Encyclopaedia 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 going on since 2019, and possibly it will continue for a while to come. Legal actions in the United States could be costly. A copyright attorney in New York or Washington DC might charge you between 200 up to 1000 dollars hourly. The longer a legal battle continues, the more expensive it becomes, and the Iranica legal battle is not an exception.

A copyright lawyer told Zamaneh that a typical lawsuit like EIF vs. Columbia could cost between 500,000 to 2 million dollars.

A source told us that Columbia University is relying on the university’s legal office, and the expense of the Columbia lawsuit is not coming from the money that has been donated to Iranica.

In contrast, in the case of EIF vs. Columbia, it seems the money is coming from the money previously donated to the Foundation for developing Iranica.

Zamaneh asked the EIF board’s chair how much have they spent on the lawsuit and where the money for the legal battle has been coming from?
“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 in front of Columbia and Brill bullying.

Rouhani did not answer our question about the exact amount that they have spent, but he added that they are spending their resources based on their rulebook, and their mission statements clearly state that they have to defend the integrity of Iranica.

Khosrow Semnani, a philanthropist and former Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Encyclopedia Iranica at Columbia University, is one of the hundreds of donors contributing to the Iranica project. Semnani and his family foundation had “provided and contributed” over $2 million to Iranica.

Khosrow Semnani, a philanthropist and former Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Encyclopedia Iranica

“I donated to Iranica towards the benefit of the objective and main purpose, which is the publishing of Iranica,” Semnani told Zamaneh.

We asked him how he feels if the money he has donated goes toward the legal law’s expenses. He answered: “Continuing the project and development of Iranica is what I hoped 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 as a result of the bad blood between the board of the EIF and Columbia University, it is not clear what will be the prospect for future cooperation between EIF and the Yarshater Center at Columbia.

Based on the 2018 EIF annual report, its assets are about 20 million dollars. If the EIF decides not to contribute to the Yarshater center, what would happen to these funds?

Ramine Rouhani told Zamaneh that, while he does not rule out the possibility of future cooperation between EIF and the center, he believes that it is highly unlikely. According to Rouhani:

“EIF regarding its work for distribution and development of Iranica will work with research institutions and universities,” Rouahni said.

Rouhani 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.

Rouhani gave out the names of the Iranian Studies program the University of Toronto, Maryland, Princeton, and Yale, as potential hosts and as an example of universities that have taken the task of starting Iranian studies initiatives and are triumphing:
“It is not as if because Iranica started at Columbia, it has to continue and come to an end at Columbia University.”

Columbia University, an IVY league university, has one of the oldest traditions of Iranian Studies in the United States, going back to 1895 when A.V.W. Jackson was appointed professor of Indo-Iranian languages. Professor Yarshater began and conducted the work on the Encyclopaedia at Columbia, and the Columbia reputation was critical for attracting funding and enhancing the prestige of the project.

Yarshater, Columbia, and the Encyclopaedia have been intertwined for over 40 years, but the board of EIF, according to the board’s chair, does not see this history as important for the continuation of Iranica.

Zamaneh Media



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