A Fine Whine

The Case of the Stolen Sense of Humor

How my New York Times op-ed got passed around the Web.

For two years, with the desperation of Dr. Richard Kimble, I have been tirelessly pursuing the hypothetical one-armed man who manipulated his mouse, copied a copyrighted humor piece of mine, and disseminated it over the Internet without either my permission or that of the New York Times, which originally published the story.

Replicating rapidly, it appeared, mostly without attribution, on personal Web pages and large commercial sites, in print and Web site versions of magazines, and in the e-mail newsletters of business gurus. It even showed up in the discussion group of stumps.org, a “whimsical support group of cheerful cripples,” where the offending party might actually be a one-armed man.

The piece originally appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times on April 20, 1998. It consisted of parodic news reports about future mergers, such as men and women agreeing to become one sex called “Humanicorp.” (If you want to read it, I would prefer that you buy, in bulk, the new humor anthology in which it appears, Mirth of a Nation; though it’s also available from the New York Timesarchive for $2.50.) A day after the story was published, a friend called and told me it was circulating on the Internet.

At the time, I was flattered. All funny guys want an audience, and mine was growing quickly—all it took was a few seconds to highlight the article on the Times’ Web site and e-mail it to friends. I reasoned that this sort of easy dissemination of information represented an example of the best the Internet had to offer, democracy in action. Humor-starved technophiles everywhere were chuckling over my bons mots and spreading the good cheer to their friends and colleagues.

A few months later, with the same curiosity that leads book authors to check their rank on Amazon.com, I fired up a search engine and entered the distinctive word I had coined: “humanicorp.”

What I found changed my mind about democratic ideals and turned my thoughts toward legal action instead. In most of the 30-odd pages that appeared in my search, the copiers had reprinted only the body of the story, not my byline or bio line.

Humor especially suffers this fate on the Net. The most notorious case involved Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich, whose “Wear Sunscreen” column somehow became attributed to Kurt Vonnegut. She got worldwide press coverage and acknowledgement that the story was hers, and she even sold the song rights in Australia. I wanted proper credit for my work and perhaps my own share of Australian song rights.

So, with the obsessiveness of Inspector Javert, the acumen of Sherlock Holmes, and the haircut of Sgt. Joe Friday, I pursued the perps to the far ends of the Internet, hunting them down via their URLs. I first went after the biggest and most egregious offenders, which I determined by the numbers on their hit counters and the way they used the article. Thus, when I discovered that a stumps.org visitor had posted my story on the message board there, I wasn’t angry but proud that he or she thought my humor could bring a little joy to cheerful amputees. Besides, its counter only registered 1,330.75 visitors (a little joke for the stumps crowd).

No, the ones I was after had had their consciences amputated, those who had not only appropriated my work, but had, either overtly or by implication, passed it off as their own, even though it was obviously produced by a skilled humor professional.

Two instances in particular galled me. One was in an e-mail newsletter from a fellow who calls himself “dr. [sic] Mark,” a k a Mark S. Albion, a former professor at Harvard Business School. He published a substantial portion under the title “Merger Wave (Humor),” introducing it this way: “Many of you have writen [sic] that you’re unsure what company you are/will be working for. Thought you should be aware of a few mergers you may have missed.” There was no mention of how he came by the piece.

What really ticked me off was this: Though he self-righteously claimed that his site (www.you-company.com) was “non-commercial,” he said that his newsletter was distributed to “over 150,000 MBAs and executives in 87 countries” and was the basis for an upcoming book. He encouraged subscribers to sign up their friends for his newsletter because the numbers helped him negotiate book deals. No doubt a sense of humor is also helpful in negotiations.

I found another inappropriate appropriation at the Web site of Pegasus Communications, which specializes in something called “Systems Thinking.” My article appeared on the Web page “Readings and Drawings from the 1998 Systems Thinking in Action® Conference” under the subhead “Readings from Daniel H. Kim.”

That little ® sent me over the edge. Kim and his cronies had registered “Systems Thinking in Action” so no one could use that creative phrase without acknowledgement, and then he boldly usurped my work.

On the same Web page as his “readings” was something called “Mindscapes” in a “Thumbnail image gallery.” Interested in thumbnail images wherever they might be found, I clicked the link and was taken to a series of pastel drawings, including one that illustrated a merger I had proposed.

Suddenly I got a clear picture of the rollicking 1998 conference for “Systems Thinking in Action.” (Hey, System Thinkers, I’m leaving off the “®”—what are you gonna do about it?) There was Kim on a big stage in front of a crowd of humorless business executives. He’s working the room like a Las Vegas comedian with my material, while his sidekick illustrates the jokes on a big newsprint pad for the slow-minded in the audience. The execs are rolling in the aisles, drooling on their rep-stripe ties, and commenting to each other how much fun Systems Thinking is. They sign up for next year’s conference and line up to buy his books and audiotapes and videos. Meanwhile, I picture Kim at the bank cashing a six-figure check.

To rap these plagiarists on their mouse-manipulating knuckles, I engaged the help of the legal department of the New York Times. While I realized that my plight wasn’t in the same league as defending publication of the Pentagon Papers, I assumed the Times would be interested in protecting its copyright as well as mine. And in fact the staff there couldn’t have been more helpful, firing off threatening e-mails, which insisted that my story be removed from the sites. I watched with delight as the number of citations for “humanicorp” diminished on my search engine.

For the most blatant offenders, namely dr. Mark and Kim, the Times also asked for $500, which for these guys is like fining an NBA superstar for some flagrant foul.

After the Times’ intervention, the piece immediately disappeared from pegasuscom.com. Kim was running scared. Dr. Mark was more problematic. After numerous e-mail exchanges, during which he accused the Times of “harassment,” he finally identified the infringement and deleted it from the archived newsletter. According to the Times, no reparations arrived from either culprit.

Almost a year and a half later, in a testament to the staying power of items archived on the Internet, a new infringement appeared. A regional general interest magazine called Midwest Today—based in Panora, Iowa—had not only posted the article on its Web site, it had published it in print as well.

My piece, uncredited, appeared as a sidebar to a feature story on mergers. Not wanting to trouble the Times legal department, which had already done yeoman work on my behalf, I wrote to the editor/publisher, Larry Jordan, myself.

In my best imitation of legal language, I asked him to remove my work from his Web site, issue a correction, and forward $500 to me pronto (that’s a legal term).

I received an e-mail in return from Jordan about the article I “apparently wrote.” He said that they “found it on the internet—unsigned—on a rather obscure website WITHOUT attribution.” He claimed that the paragons of journalistic integrity (my phrase) at Midwest Today “ALWAYS try to establish original authorship AND secure official permission.” In the case of my story, their valiant attempt to impress the Pulitzer committee consisted of e-mailing the “obscure website.” When they received no reply, they decided that was permission enough to run the story.

With more waffling self-justification, he shot himself in the foot so badly he should have had a trigger lock on his keyboard. He wrote that my piece was available at other sites, and then he listed four of them, including one that included my byline, bio line, date of publication, and at the bottom the phrase “copyright 1998 The New York Times Company.” He ended his e-mail by declaring that $500 “would surely have guaranteed first-run rights, and as you can see your piece is widely available elsewhere, which”—and this quote is worth the entire $500 I didn’t get—”cheapens the realm of the coin.” Though Jordan didn’t loosen the purse strings, he did remove the story from the Web site and promise to run a correction.

I’m closing the case on this, forswearing any more searches for “humanicorp.” Now I’m willing to assume that the all of the above found my story innocently, unattributed, perhaps in an e-mail or elsewhere on the Web. They even seem to be upstanding, respectable citizens of a sort. But I am not willing to accept the next step—that, because they found it unsigned and because they thought they could get away with it, they chose to post it, print it, and pass it off as their own. Dr. Mark et al. treated my work as if they had found a $20 bill on the sidewalk and pocketed it; they should have treated it as if they had found a wallet and tried to seek out the rightful owner.

But for now on the Internet, as Larry Jordan might say, it’s “losers weepers, finders keepers.”