Two publishing trade organizations, the PEN American Center and Arcade Publishing, have jointly filed suit against the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in a New York federal court. The parties are asking the court to strike down regulations that require publishers and authors to acquire a government license in order to publish in America written works from nations under sanctions, including Iran, Cuba, and Sudan. They maintain that the regulations violate the First Amendment, as well as the Trading with the Enemy Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

The plaintiffs, including the Professional and Scholarly Division of the Association of American Publishers and the Association of American University Presses, say that OFAC has created “uncertainty and confusion among publishers,” who fear penalties of up to $1 million and prison sentences of up to 10 years for each violation. As the organizations note, “those rulings and the regulations they interpret mandate that Americans (1) may not enter into transactions for works not yet fully completed, (2) may not provide “substantive or artistic alterations or enhancements” to the works, and (3) may not promote or market either new or previously existing works from the affected countries.”

PEN President Salman Rushdie comments in a statement, “OFAC says publishers are free to publish ‘pre-existing’ texts from these countries. Yet the countries currently under U.S. trade embargo routinely prevent important work by writers and scholars from seeing the light of day.”

The regulations have been on the books since 1989, but it’s only in the past year or so that their full potential has become known among publishers. They were a particular issue in a dispute with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers over a peer review of work from Iranians. Earlier this year, the government conceded that basic copyediting and some direct translation was permissible and did not require a license.

But now that publishers are aware of how broadly the laws can be interpreted, Arcade Publishing’s Dick Seaver notes that the company is concerned about facing penalties for publishing a book like “The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature.” He said, “Some of the work can’t be published in Iran because of government censorship there. If publication is blocked by government interference here, what’s the functional difference between Iran’s censorship and ours?”

As an indication of the vagueness of the government’s position, Treasury Department spokeswoman Molly Millerwise told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that there is “no restriction against” basic publication, translation, copyediting, or peer review. But she indicated that “more extensive editorial collaboration or co-authorship by Americans could be construed as illegally ‘providing a service.’ “

As a PEN statement indicates, “Publishers, editors, translators, scientists, and scientific writers grew increasingly alarmed as these rulings and clarifications illuminated a largely unseen barrier to intellectual and cultural exchange and suggested that a whole range of activities fundamental to the editorial and publication process could violate the regulations and expose editors, translators, and publishers to severe criminal penalties.”

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