A lawsuit filed in federal court in New Mexico in June 2015 pits Harvard University, which has about a $37 billion endowment, against Steve Elmore, an antiques dealer who patched together $36,000 to self-publish a book. The suit may hinge on the definition of the word “manuscript.”
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In 2015 Elmore of Santa Fe, New Mexico, self-published a 217-page book, In Search of Nampeyo: The Early Years, 1875-1892. It was the culmination of decades of work and research. His publication was also the result of Elmore’s being rejected by the Peabody Museum Press, the publishing arm of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.
In its suit, Harvard claims Elmore used photos he took in the Peabody Museum after signing an agreement that specified how he would use the photos and restricted their use. Elmore counters that Harvard released all its rights to the manuscript and wants to publish his decades of research without crediting him.
According to court documents, in August 2010 Elmore signed a contract with the Peabody Museum Press to write a manuscript on Nampeyo. The contract noted that the manuscript was subject to peer review and promised “potential publication,” and Elmore was paid $1500 to conduct research at the museum.
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“The first version of my manuscript was sent out for peer review, with two out of three reviewers recommending publication with revisions. The editor asked me to revise the book for the more scholarly ‘Peabody Museum Papers’ series. She asked me to explain my methodology and to link my work to art history, which I did. The new version of my manuscript, complete with my photos, took me another year and added 100 pages to my manuscript. In November 2013 I submitted this final version…and it was rejected with little comment in January 2014 by the Peabody Museum Press board of directors,” said Elmore.
The rejection letter’s language is the subject of dispute.
In a letter dated January 21, 2014, Joan Kathryn O’Donnell, director of the Peabody Museum Press, rejected Elmore’s manuscript because it was not a fit with the Peabody’s “editorial and publishing priorities and standards.” Elmore’s approach to the material, the letter said, was “inappropriate” for the Peabody’s scholarly publication series, and it quoted a board member who leveled a stark criticism. “We are an academic press, and this is not an academic book,” the unnamed board member said.
The rejection letter stated that the Peabody Museum Press was returning to Elmore “all rights in the manuscript…including all versions of the manuscript submitted to the Peabody Museum Press.” O’Donnell encouraged Elmore to publish elsewhere, even offering ten to 15 high-quality photographs and suggesting American Indian Art Magazine as a possible venue. “We tried very hard to make this project work,” O’Donnell lamented.
Elmore took O’Donnell’s advice but didn’t go the magazine route, and he didn’t accept the Peabody’s offer of photographs; he self-published the book through Spirit Bird Press, an entity he created.
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On December 10, 2015, a federal judge granted Harvard’s motion for an injunction, stopping Elmore from advertising, selling, and distributing his book. Elmore had already sold over 900 copies of the book that cost him $36,000 to produce, had a deal with Amazon.com in place, and had media kits ready to promote his book.Maine Antique Digest reviewed the book in the April 2015 issue.
Elmore is fighting back on two fronts: he’s filed a countersuit in federal court and launched legal action in a state court in New Mexico. His countersuit alleges breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, tortious interference with contractual relations, conversion, and more.
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In an e-mail to M.A.D., Elmore states his case. “Here’s my take on the Permission to Photo agreement. First, that agreement is Harvard’s attempt to strip photographers of their copyright of their work. The intention of the agreement is for Harvard to avoid U.S. Federal Copyright law and for Harvard to assert itself between the photographer and his own copyright, thus placing itself above the law. Right now, Harvard acknowledges I own the copyright to my photos, returned in the ‘all rights’ letter, yet insists I can’t publish them. What else does copyright mean? I’m not denying I signed the agreement, and I would not have published without their returning to me in writing from the Board ‘all rights’ etc. and ‘recommending’ I publish elsewhere.
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Harvard’s lawyers claim the injunction is necessary. “It is extremely important to the Museum to have control over and approval of any published photographs of its collections, because the quality of those photographs and the way they are presented reflect directly on the Museum, and either enhance or degrade its reputation.” Harvard claims that Elmore’s photographs are blurry, washed out, or inadequately lighted.