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USA Today Plagiarized My Crossword

Why couldn’t they pick one of the good ones?

stolen crossword

Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Image by Charlie Powell.

Of the several dozen crossword puzzles I’ve had published in major newspapers, the worst is almost certainly the one that appeared in the New York Times on July 26, 1999. Fully solved, it looks like this: 

It was only my second puzzle and featured what I would generously call an insipid theme, three two-word phrases whose first words mean, more or less, the same thing: COMBINED INCOME, ASSOCIATED PRESS, and UNITED AIRLINES. Get it? I know, there’s not much to get. I’m not even sure they’re technically synonyms.

If pressed, I might mention two things about the puzzle. First, it is the sole New York Times crossword, as of this writing, to have either COMBINED INCOME or UNITED AIRLINES in its grid. Lots of puzzles have “unique” answers—words or phrases that appear in no other puzzle in a publication’s history—so this fact is not especially noteworthy. But it’s not nothing, and it does help redeem the ambient banality. Second, the puzzle’s theme was republished in USA Today on Dec. 7, 2004—helpfully titled “Together Again”—under the byline “Beverly Gilchrist.” And again by the Universal Press Syndicate on Dec. 1, 2006 under the name Carl Cranby. And yet again in Universal papers on Aug. 28, 2007, this time by Gia Kilroy. Whoa!

Did we all independently hit on the same idea? And execute it in the same way? And organize it in the same order? Did we really all choose the same, alliterative clue for COMBINED INCOME (“Family financial figure”)? Is that possible, Bev?!

Of course not. We now know that hundreds of crossword puzzle authors (“constructors” in the parlance of cruciverbalists) had their original themes lifted holus bolus and dropped into USA Today and other papers by puzzle editor Timothy Parker. (Parker has since “stepped back” from his role at the paper.) Sometimes the “fill”—the many answers that are unrelated to the theme—would remain largely unchanged. Other times not. Sometimes the clues would be copied verbatim. Other times they were rewritten. Sometimes the byline would carry over intact. Other times I became Carl. To be clear, there are people who call me Mike, Michael, Mick, even Mikey. Nobody, I’d have told Parker had he bothered to ask, calls me Carl.

Prior to 1993, when Will Shortz succeeded Eugene T. Maleska as puzzle editor of the New York Times, constructors were not credited in the pages of the newspaper. William Lutwiniak, a self-taught cryptanalyst for the National Security Agency who made more than 300 crosswords for the Times, had the misfortune of dying in 1992. And so, despite being one of the most prolific constructors of his generation, Lutwiniak was entirely nameless to millions of solvers. Even worse, nearly 5,000 Times puzzles from the Pre-Shortz Era, when record-keeping was haphazard, are of unknown authorship. Constructors “labored anonymously,” as Shortz put it in 2009 during an “Ask Will” Q&A on the Times’ Wordplay blog. “I thought the constructors deserved the recognition, and I knew that people would care more about their work if their names appeared beside it,” he said.

But pride of authorship, in the scandal over Parker’s plagiarism, does not encompass pride of ownership. Not for the constructor anyway. The New York Times owns the copyright and generates revenue from crossword compilation books in which my puzzles sometimes appear. I, in exchange for the platform, get a one-time fee—which is fine with me. Without a financial stake, though, pride of authorship is all I have. So my question for Timothy Parker is: Why that puzzle?

The theme was not as structurally elegant as that of my first crossword, published in the Times weeks earlier, which contained the parallel imperatives DROP ME A LINE (clued as “Write!”), GIVE ME A BUZZ (“Call!”), and PAY ME A VISIT (“Stop by!”). And it was not nearly as clever as my third crossword, published a few weeks later, again in the Times: YESTERDAY’S NEWS (“It’s old”), A THING OF THE PAST (“It’s very old”), and ANCIENT HISTORY (“It’s very, very old”). Neither aesthetic nor witty, my second puzzle was the equivalent of picking related words from a thesaurus. Why copy my worst puzzle? As far as I’m concerned, the real crime here is one of taste.