BERLIN (AP) -- Ian Baldwin is director of a research institute at Germany's prestigious Max Planck Society and has a Ph.D. in ecology from Cornell University. But the American scholar has run afoul of German police for bandying about his doctorate without permission.
He and two other Americans recently received letters notifying them that they had been charged with the crime of "misuse of a title" - a Nazi-era law passed in 1939 that was apparently designed to keep foreign influence out of German academia.
The law dictates that anyone with a doctorate from a foreign university must get the Education Ministry's approval to use the title. Violators face fines and up to a year in jail, although authorities say no one has been imprisoned in the postwar period.
Baldwin laughed off any notion he was trying to commit fraud.
"First off, I don't even refer to myself as a doctor in my private life," he said. "If anything, it's my colleagues at the Max Planck Institute that refer to me as Dr. Baldwin."
At least two other Americans working as directors at Max Planck Institutes in the eastern German city of Jena faced similar charges - David Heckel, who has a Ph.D. from Stanford University, and Jonathan Gershenzon, who has a doctorate from the University of Texas.
Baer Detlef, a spokesman for the Thuringia state education ministry, said the cases against Baldwin and Gershenzon have already been dismissed, and he expects a suspension of the case against Heckel soon.
"Their stories checked out," Detlef said. "They simply did not know about the law."
Titles are not taken lightly in the strict formality of Germany, where neighbors or colleagues who have known each other for decades still call each other by their last names and where titles are considered part of an individual's legal name.
"The law also prohibits masquerading as a police officer, medical doctor or professor," said Erik Kraatz, an assistant professor of criminal law at the Free University of Berlin.
Since the law didn't include any specifically xenophobic language, it cleared the vetting process of the German legal system carried out by the occupying forces - the U.S., Britain and France - after World War II.
Germany is not the only European country to enforce the use of academic titles. Spain and Switzerland also require Ph.D. holders to furnish proof of their degree. But in the event of a conviction, those countries only impose fines and not prison sentences.
Baldwin was baffled that his academic status managed to appear on the radar of German officialdom.
"I assume someone tipped the state police off," he said. "But, I have no idea who would do that."