Egyptian Author Threatens to Sue Israeli-Palestinian NGO for Translating Book Without Permission

Though no profits were earned as the novel was published for free, the writer is upset because he wanted to boycott the Hebrew language for political reasons.

Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany is threatening to sue the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information ‏(IPCRI‏) for translating and publishing his acclaimed novel “The Yacoubian Building” against his will.

IPCRI published a Hebrew translation of the book on its website over the weekend. It said Al Aswany has persistently refused to have his books published in Israel, but the center decided to offer the book to Hebrew readers regardless. The title page says the translation is copyrighted by “IPCRI 2010.”

Cairo, Egypt (Nir Kafri / Archive)
Nir Kafri / Archive

Al Aswany told reporters over the weekend that IPCRI’s action was a gross violation of his copyright, and that translating and publishing his book without permission was theft. He planned to sue IPCRI, he said.

The center’s director, Dr. Gershon Baskin, told Haaretz the translation was completed several years ago. The center has sought Al Aswany’s permission to translate the book for several years, but he refused, he said. The center had no desire to profit from the book, he said.

“We didn’t intend to infringe on his copyright but just to get Israelis acquainted with the book,” said Baskin. “The question here is whether Israelis’ right to read the book outweighs his copyright.”

“Second, I met Aswany several years ago and he told me that if the book was published in Israel and there were royalties, he would give them to Hamas. So this is who we’re dealing with. Third, the cultural boycott of the Hebrew language which he supports or is forced to support is a form of cultural terrorism, which I don’t have to agree to,” he said.

Yael Lerer, who runs the Andalus publishing house, which translates Arabic literature into Hebrew, slammed Baskin’s decision.

“This is piracy and copyright theft,” she said. “We also sought Al Aswany’s permission for many years, but we respected his refusal. It was always of paramount importance to us to have the author’s agreement before we translate.”

“I can disagree with a person, but ultimately he owns the rights to the book,” Lerer said.

“Baskin’s position is intolerable and paternalistic. He is essentially saying, we’ll show you Egyptians how to respect the peace agreement − we know better than you what you want.”

Attorney Yoram Lichtenstein, a copyright expert, told Haaretz that while the law does provide for certain situations where the public’s right to know may take precedence over copyright, no Israeli court has ever ruled that this applies to an important literary work or that political circumstances justify copyright violations.

IPCRI’s behavior is not covered by fair use provisions in Israeli copyright law, and while the center does own rights to the translation, publishing it violates the author’s copyright, he said.

Baskin said that even if Aswany decides to sue IPCRI, he would still welcome him in Israel. Asked whether IPCRI would win the case, Baskin said: “I don’t know, but I’ll enjoy it.”