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Israeli court upholds copyright of Sea Scrolls

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JERUSALEM — Israel's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld an Israeli scholar's copyright on the deciphering of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the musty documents chronicling Holy Land life in the time of Jesus.

The decision — the latest in the yearslong battle between overseas academics and scholars here over who controls the scraps of parchment — levies fines against a trio of U.S.-based scholars for copyright violation.

Amos Hausner, a lawyer for U.S. scholar Robert Eisenman, said the decision inhibits the free use of scientific knowledge.

"It's like copyrighting scientific truth, like Einstein copyrighting 'e equals mc2,' " Hausner said. "These ancient texts are part of the scientific knowledge."

At issue was research by Elisha Qimron, a scholar at Ben Gurion University in the Israeli desert town of Beersheva.

After years of painstaking study of hundreds of fragments sifted from 15,000 found in cave near the Dead Sea, Qimron pieced together a 2,000-year-old missive from the leader of a Jewish sect based in the Judean Desert to a Jewish leader in Jerusalem.

Then in 1992, three scholars included Qimron's paper in a book they published and edited, "A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls." They did not have Qimron's permission. The publisher, Hershel Shanks, obtained a draft of the paper circulating among scholars for comment.

Judge Yaakov Tirkel, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, agreed that Qimron could not claim copyright on the scroll fragments, nor on those fragments that were pieced together by physical resemblance.

However, the deduction of the 40 percent of the text that was missing emerged from Qimron's "creative depths," Tirkel said, and the scholar was therefore was entitled to the copyright.

The court acknowledged the lesser role of Eisenman and James Robinson in the copyright violation, fining them $2,500 as opposed to the $10,000 it fined Shanks. Tirkel said the two were still liable because they did not demand that Shanks remove their names as editors once they discovered he was to include Qimron's work.

The scrolls, mostly in fragments by the time of their discovery in caves near the Dead Sea in the late 1940s and early 1950s, are believed to be from the archives of Jewish sects who lived in the area around the time of Jesus.

Israel gained control of them during the Six-Day War in 1967 and gave exclusive access to a small committee that locked out other scholars.

The scrolls found whole were published, but 20 percent of the documents, mostly thousands of confusing bits, remained unavailable until Shanks began publishing copies in 1991.

The book, "A Facsimile Edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls," was another part of Shanks' campaign to open the scrolls to others.

Complaints from academics and the campaign for more access forced changes.

"This case allowed the (Israeli) establishment to maintain a monopoly on the scrolls," said Eisenman, a professor of Middle East Religions and Archaeology at California State University-Long Beach. "It's had a chilling effect on my work."

In fact, the "monopoly" is over. The scrolls — and the scholarship by Qimron and others — are now available for study on CD-ROM and in book form.

That, Qimron acknowledged, was a result of the publication of the book by Shanks, Robinson and Eisenman.

"It's all open now," he said. "The (Israel) Antiquities Authority decided to open it up after they published."

Although overjoyed that the case was over — Eisenman's lawyer said an appeal was unlikely — Qimron said he has regrets about the access others now have to the scrolls. He said it robbed scholars such as himself of the leisurely pace they once enjoyed.

"Now there are a lot of people, and they work in haste to beat each other to publication," he said. "That's not proper."

Eisenman said he expected the decision: "It's a hometown court," he said in a telephone interview.

He noted that Shanks acknowledged that the decision to include Qimron's work was his own — and was made despite his and Robinson's objections — yet the court still fined them in its decision.

That was proof, Eisenman said, that Israel has assumed a "monopoly" over the scrolls and that authorities here are not ready to countenance study of the texts by others.

"After the way we were treated, young scholars now will not stand against the establishment," he said.

Osnat Gouez, a spokeswoman for the Antiquities Authority, dismissed the claim as "outrageous" and not worthy of further comment.