The Dead Sea Scrolls Meet the Court Room Once Again

There are few, if any, parchments that create the emotional charge of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Since their discovery, beginning in the late 1940's, debate has raged over their authorship, what light they cast on the beginnings of Christianity and the Judaism of the time, as well as more current issues of who has control over and access to the parchments for research and study. The debate involving the Scrolls has also reached various courtrooms.

One of the most media-drenched iconic copyright cases of the last 20 years must certainly be the dispute over the copyrightability of the Scrolls. Well, not exactly the Scrolls themselves, since they entered the public domain nearly 2,000 years ago. But in the case of Eisenman v. Qimron, the Israel Supreme Court was called upon the decide on whether the reconstruction of one of the ancient texts by an Israeli academic--Professor Elisha Qimron-- was a protected copyright work.

What Qimron did was study the text itself, which itself was a physical recreation of a large number of parchment fragements that had been discovered in a desert cave in the late 1940's. Imagine having your grandchild tear up into fragments your favorite copy of Beowulf in the original Norse language and then try to put the fragments back together again--you get the idea. Since the physical reconstruction itself revealed gaps in the text, Professor Qimron was asked to complete the text, which he did.

The reconstructed text was then set to be the centerpeice of a book that Professor Qimron intended to publish. But before he could do so, however, the reconstruction was published in a journal--Biblical Archealogical Review. Qimron alleged infringement, while the defendants challenged the copyrightability of Qimron's reconstruction, arguing inter alia that what he did was reconstruct a pre-existing work (albeit of ancient provenance) that may well have significant academic value, but which did not constitute a "work" in the copyright sense. Qimron prevailed at tht trial court level and the Supreme Court affirmed.

Behind the particulars of the case (and the archaeo-political intrigue behind it) the debate continues to rage over who composed the Scrolls. Two of the most prominent scholars in this field are Lawrence Schiffman of New York University and Norman Golb of the University of Chicago (who was a witness in the copyright case discussed above). The debate centers on whether the authors of the scrolls were members of the Essenes, an ascetic sect that lived in the Judean desert, or other groups located in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Now the issue of the authorship of the scrolls has led to its own lawsuit.

As reported by the Associated Press earlier this week, here, "Dead Sea Scroll Debate Spurs NY Criminal Trial", a New York attorney, Raphael Golb, went on trial earlier this week on criminal charges of online impersonation and harassment. Golb is the son of Professor Norman Golb. What exactly is Rapahel Golb accused having done? The AP article explains:

"New York University professor Lawrence Schiffman's students and colleagues started getting panicked and confessional e-mails, in his name, that pointed them to blog posts accusing him of plagiarism. Prosecutors say the e-mails and website posts were a hoax created by a lawyer on an idiosyncratic mission: to champion his father and discredit Schiffman in a debate over the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls. .... Assistant District Attorney John Bandler called the electronic whisper campaign 'a disturbing pattern of conduct,' involving about 70 phony e-mail accounts and hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work. Schiffman said he devoted weeks responding to inquiries from colleagues, students and NYU officials."

The article goes on to report that Golb "has pleaded not guilty to identity theft, criminal impersonation and other charges. He hasn't acknowledged crafting the mesages, but his lawyers say the plagiarism allegations are true, and the writings amount ot typical blogoshere banter--not crime."

As for the claim of plagiarism itself, the blog posts at issue claimed that Schiffman "stole" from Golb's scholarly works. The e-mails, which were made to appear as coming from Schiffman, asked from the recipients they "help cover-up the supposed plagiarism. Schiffman, for his part, rejects the accusation and maintains that the material at issue "is common knowledge."

Criminal prosecutions involving a charge of impersonation, outside of claims of financial shenanigans, are rare. There does not seem to be any precedent for a criminal charge of Internet impersonation under these cirumstances and impersonation charges outside of the financial sector seem extremely rare.

What do we make of this story?

1. Once again, we are reminded how high emotions seem to run when the Dead Sea
Scrolls are involved. This Kat was involved in the civil law suit described above, and to this day he is amazed by the emotions that emanated from it for all concerned. There was something about reaching back into ancient history, both physically and spirtually, that transcended even of the excitement of the legal issues themselves. When my grandchildren are old enough to understand, and they ask what I did in my career, I will undoubtedly begin my saying: "I was involved in the Dead Sea Scrolls case." If true for me, I can only imagine the emotions swirling though others connected to the study of these documents and the milieu in which they were created.

2. Two weeks ago, this Kat published a blog post here on the legal and other uncertainties in connection with plagiarism. Comments were received, both on and off the record, about the wisdom of recognizing a criminal aspect to plagiarism. I don't think that anyone involved in that exchange contemplated a connection between plagiarism and criminal action for impersonation.

More on the Dead Sea Scrolls case here and here and here .
The Dead Sea Scrolls Meet the Court Room Once Again The Dead Sea Scrolls Meet the Court Room Once Again Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, September 17, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. Two comments:

    The then Dean of NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Science(and a University Professor, the highest academic title a university can bestow) testified on 9/16/10 in open court that she, the provost and others received e-mail purportedly a "confession" of plagiarism" from Professor Schiffman, as well as other emails (since proved to be using fraudulent addresses) demanding an investigation. prompting the university to undertake an investigation, and Prof. Schiffman was forced to defend himself.

    2. While Prof. Schiffman is regarded as the pre-eminent Scrolls scholar, Prof. Golb is regarded as a scholar holding a quirky, minority view.

  2. Too bad that allegations were made and that an investigation ensued. But that would have been the case had the charges been made more conventionally. Surprising that impersonator's allegations led to a hearing. There must be a lot of suspicion circulating about Schiffman for that to take place.

  3. Neil, I can't let you get away with "Well, not exactly the Scrolls themselves, since they entered the public domain nearly 2,000 years ago. ". This should be seen as a contentious statement for any EU-resident IP lawyer as the term directive creates a copyright in unpublished works. The scrolls have been published at various points since their discovery, and some remain still unpublished. There was a rush of publications in 1991. Thanks to the copyright that subsists in unpublished works, in the UK, the scrolls published in 1991 and after will be copyright works until at least 2041. Well, that is, assuming the scrolls were unpublished when discovered. Which in turn depends on the events of over 2000 years ago. If they were obtained by the Essenes from scroll copyists in Jerusalem, then perhaps they could be said to be published works. I can see a court having fun pronouncing on that. So, even leaving aside questions of editorial and photographic copyright in facsimile images, we may be handling a work here protected for the life of the author + 2200 years.

    Something of which term extension protagonists would be envious.


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