Women Fight Over Control of Iowa Cold Cases Data
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Journalist Jody Ewing has chronicled hundreds of bizarre and gruesome unsolved Iowa murders, but she now finds herself pondering a drier mystery: who owns the copyright to their stories?
Ewing started Iowa Cold Cases in 2005 after she wrote about Sioux City crimes and realized no agency compiled details of unsolved cases in Iowa. The nonprofit became popular with relatives seeking answers in a loved one's death and journalists, and its online database expanded to 450 unsolved killings and 150 missing persons cases.
But a nasty feud between Ewing and researcher Nancy Bowers, who was the site's co-administrator from 2010 until recently, has become a major distraction to the group and put a question mark over its future.
The women are engaged in a fight for control of information on the group's website that attracts up to 240,000 page views per month, with each accusing the other of intellectual property theft. Reputations and the rights to months of work are at stake but no money, because Iowa Cold Cases doesn't even pay salaries.
Board members say Bowers, of Ames, was removed from the group in June for unprofessional behavior. The next month, Bowers started a similar website — Iowa's Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases — featuring some of her pieces that had been posted at Iowa Cold Cases, mostly about older homicides between the 1800s and 1960s.
"It's stealing, what she's trying to do. It's like she thinks that she owns these cases. She doesn't own these cases and neither do I," Ewing, of Onawa, said in a telephone interview.
Bowers' attorney, Kirk Hartung, sent Ewing a letter July 30 demanding Iowa Cold Cases remove 330 summaries, articles and blog posts Bowers wrote, saying it was her copyrighted work and the group was unfairly blocking her access.
Ewing, 53, disputes any copyright infringement, noting Bowers uploaded the materials herself.
But last week, Ewing said she agreed to start a lengthy process to remove some of the material to avoid an expensive legal battle the group, which has $96 in the bank, cannot afford. She said she will remove articles Bowers wrote about historical cases, her summaries on more recent ones and blog posts written to mark anniversaries of deaths.
Ewing told Hartung she will leave the basic information on all cases — like the victim's name and hometown — because they are public record and "cannot be 'copyrighted' by any journalist, writer or author."
Victims' family members are supporting Ewing, who they credit with keeping alive the memories of their loved ones, and worry about the impact on the group. Lisa Schenzel, whose sister Maureen Farley was 17 when she was found slain in Cedar Rapids in 1971, said she was disheartened by Bowers' actions.
"That was supposed to be for the good of somebody's unsolved death, and now you're saying you have copyright on it? Wow," Schenzel said. "It's too bad."
Carol Kean, whose 18-year-old sister Julie Benning disappeared in Waverly in 1975 and was later found dead, said Ewing was the first to notify her authorities were taking a new look at the case a few years ago. No arrests were made, but Kean credits Ewing with writing a beautiful article about her sister and connecting her with other victims' families.
"Jody went out of her way with the words and the photos to bring Julie back to life, at least if only on a website," Kean said. As for Bowers, she said: "It doesn't sound like she's got the best interests of survivors and the loved ones who died in these cold cases, if she's all worried about copyright."
Ewing said she plans to soon send paperwork to the Internet hosting service Bowers uses demanding she take her new website down. She called it a copycat of Iowa Cold Cases.
Bowers declined an interview request. She referred questions to Hartung, who said he was glad Ewing agreed to remove the materials.
The feud had been building for months and escalated when the group's board — Ewing, her longtime partner Dennis Ryan and attorney Eileen Meier — voted to remove Bowers from her unpaid position, Ewing said.
Ewing said the move came after she and Bowers no longer were on speaking terms. Bowers had publicly and privately criticized Ewing and Iowa media outlets, who are key to raising awareness about the cases the group chronicles, Ewing said.
In a letter to Ewing, Hartung generally disputed her characterization of Bowers' removal and told her to refrain from further "disparaging and slanderous" comments.
Ewing said her decision in 2010 to allow Bowers to help run the site, at a time when it was growing, turned out to be a costly mistake. The loss of Bowers' material comes after the group was almost done summarizing every known cold case — only about two dozen had remained.
"It's been 2 years and 4 months of a total waste of time," she said. "It's almost like going backward."
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