Bizarre persecution of Russian mathematician May 16, 2012Posted by David Speyer in Uncategorized.
I don’t fully understand this story, but it is time sensitive. Misha Verbitsky is a complex geometer who is also an active Russian political blogger.
Recently, he was arrested by the Russian government while attempting to board a flight out of the country. It turns out he was convicted in absentia of violating the trademark of a man named Igor Pugach, by using an image of Pugach to illustrate a blogpost criticizing Pugach. Verbitsky was fined 300,000 rubles (approximately 9,700 dollars) and will not be able to leave Russia until he pays the sum. Verbitsky’s blog is here; due to my inability to read Russian I have not located the post in question. A newspaper article on the issue is here.
Obviously, this violates all sorts of legal norms. Under US trademark law, you simply can’t be convicted of a trademark violation if you are not selling something. You could be convicted of a copyright violation, but this case would likely be fair use. Moreover, you certainly can’t have a large judgment made against you in absentia, except after extraordinary efforts have been made to notify you of the proceedings. I don’t know Russian law, but I am quite willing to say this is immoral, and expect that it is also illegal. (There is also a profoundly dumb statement by Pugach’s spokesperson that simply wearing a beard similar to Pugach’s is a trademark/copyright violation but, since that doesn’t appear to be the basis of the court ruling, I am going to lump that under “people say remarkably dumb things sometimes”.)
There is a petition to free Verbitsky here directed to Putin. I tend to be skeptical of the value of internet petitions, but it’s a start. I have also submitted this story to Boing Boing and the Volokh Conspiracy, in the name of boosting the signal.
I’d be interested in suggestions as to what we should be doing to get this story off the internet and to the attention of people who care. My next thought is to contact the US State Dept, or ask my Senators to do so. Does anyone know whether Verbitsky is a US Citizen? I assume our government will care more if this is the case. (Wikipedia reports that he lived in the US in the 90′s, and lives in Russia while travelling frequently now, but doesn’t give citizenship.)