Citing Poem Leads Synagogue into Treacherous Legal Waters

Copyright infringement? Honest mistake? Either way, one synagogue facing a legal brouhaha is learning the hard way how important it is to cite quoted material.

When officials at the Beth Israel Congregation of Owings Mills, Md., posted a student’s speech on its Web site, they say they had no idea that the student — speaking at an annual memorial event at the shul for a former youth member — had quoted a poem without citing the author’s name.

“It was done very innocently. It was a speech by a child,” said David Rothenberg, executive director of the suburban Baltimore synagogue. But the author of “The Dash,” Linda Ellis, found the use of her poem — which also was mistitled by the student — during an Internet search. She contacted the congregation, informed them of their transgression and demanded royalties.

The congregation took the poem off its Web site immediately. But in an Internet age, other congregations who often use Ellis’ poem during Yom Kippur and yizkor services may soon find themselves walking a similar legal high wire.

Ellis’ 36-line poem, which she copyrighted in 1998, pays homage to “the dash” between a person’s birth and death, urging readers to spend their lifetime dash wisely.

Ellis’ simple language has made the poem popular in memorials and eulogies: “For it matters not, how much we own;/ the cars…the house . . . the cash./ What matters is how we live and love/ and how we spend out dash.”

Beth Israel, whose dispute with Ellis continues, is not the only synagogue targeted recently by Ellis for legal recompense. The Jewish Center of the Hamptons, in East Hampton, N.Y., recently settled a similar legal dispute with Ellis for an undisclosed amount.

Ellis says she has found “hundreds” of other institutions on the Internet that cite the poem she calls her “baby” without legal permission, including churches, synagogues and individuals.

In a telephone interview from her store in Georgia, Linda’s Lyrics, Ellis defended her position.

The Internet has created obstacles for working writers, she said. “Instead of finding my site where the poem is for sale, they find it for free.”

But “intellectual property is property. Though not tangible, it is property and it is valuable.”

Ellis’s legal wrangling raises the issue of the legal ramifications of using authored material without permission.

The basic rules of copyright law say that copyright owners have the exclusive right to copy and distribute their work and to authorize others to do so, according to Eric Prager, a partner at Darby & Darby, a New York-based law firm specializing in intellectual-property and copyright law.

In an era when the Internet is seen as a legitimate and free source for almost any written material, the mistake made by Beth Israel and others seems worth avoiding.

After being contacted by Ellis, the synagogue’s executive director e-mailed colleagues to warn them about the potential legal trap.

Meanwhile, Ellis has her own work to do to protect her copyright.

The only exception to copyright ownership is “if there has been long-standing and widespread infringement and the owner has done nothing about it,” said Prager, who calls the practice “sleeping on your rights.”

If Ellis did not protect her poem, it would enter the public domain.

Ellis’ lawyer, Timothy Lockhart, of the Virginia law firm of Willcox & Savage, confirmed that Ellis is not trying to get rich by contacting congregations who use her poem, but is simply protecting her property.

“She is a professional writer,” Lockhart said of Ellis. ” ‘The Dash’ is her single most important and valuable poem. This is how she feeds her family.”

Legal recourse for synagogues who have infringed on Ellis’ copyright is fairly limited.

At Beth Israel, Rothenberg bemoans the target of Ellis’ action: an honors student and former president of the synagogue’s chapter of United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth organization who used the poem in goodwill at an annual memorial ceremony for a synagogue member who died 30 years ago.

Nevertheless, Rothenberg says, “This is a valuable lesson for our teenagers in properly quoting and giving a citation from another author when using someone else’s work in their essay.”

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