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 Times' archive 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.
Jay Jennings is a free-lance writer in Tarrytown, N.Y. His humor and journalism have appeared in Vogue, Entertainment Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times.