The Breakfast Table

Zygote Me No Zygotes

My Dear Ms. E:

Please, please, zygote me no zygotes. All that stuff you wrote about the menstrual murders–save it for the anatomy lab, kid. Just snuff the little buggers and let’s get on with it. Suffice it to say, you and I agree abortion ought to be legal and if you are pleased to think so because free choice matters to you, you’ll get no argument from me. The bumper sticker on the back of my car reads, “CAUTION! THE FETUS YOU SAVE WILL GROW UP TO MUG YOU!”

A somewhat less shop worn controversy popped up in the pages of the current issue of Archaeology, the one with the “Birth of Christ” by Master Raigern, circa 1425, on the cover and the question, “Star of Bethlehem, Fact or Fiction?” The article recounts a recent Israeli court case in which the judge found against Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, and ordered him to pay 20,000 shekels in statutory damages and 80,000 shekels for causing mental anguish to Elisha Qimron. (That’s 26,000 buckeroos in modern American.)

Qimron spent 11 years assembling and making sense out of the fragments of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The magazine says that “Qimron’s reconstruction showed the document to be one of the most important of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a letter that may have been written by the founder of the sect that lived at Khirbet Qumran, known as the Teacher of Righteousness. The letter cites the practices and beliefs that set the sect apart from mainstream Judaism.”

In due course Qimron’s reconstruction was published without credit or permission in a Polish scholarly newsletter and then again by Shanks. This latter act caused Qimron to sue for copyright infringement and, while 11 years of labor should entitle somebody to something, the case serves to remind us that, under the banner of intellectual property, the number of things you thought were free but aren’t is growing so briskly that in the not too distant future it may be impossible to complete a sentence without dispatching a royalty payment to somebody or some corporation. Millions of words and images, some of great antiquity, may not be seen or uttered without paying a toll, thereby proving the best things in life aren’t free and now, for the use of that phrase, I suppose I should fire off a penny to the estate of George Gershwin.

The workman deserves his hire, but enough’s enough. Things must go into the public domain and sooner rather than later. Isaac Newton would not have had cause to say, “If I have seen further…it is by standing upon the shoulders of Giants,” had he been forced to pay rent for putting his feet there. But if I were God’s lawyer, I’d have to tell him to bust his butt over to the Library of Congress and copyright the Bible.