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Over Easy: Who Invented Email?

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You’ve got mail!

Let’s take a break from the sad and depressing news of the past week and look at an amusing controversy involving a Huffington Post multi-part series about the “history” (scare quotes intentional) of email. As Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers are fond of proclaiming, “Boooogus!”

Back in 2012, The Washington Post and other media outlets were all over a claim by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai that he had “invented email” in 1978. That claim was totally false, and was based on misconceptions about email, software and copyright law. The WaPo reported at the time that,

The Smithsonian has acquired the tapes, documentation, copyrights, and over 50,000 lines of code that chronicle the invention of ‘EMAIL,’ a program created by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai when he was a 14 year-old high-school student in New Jersey.

But this isn’t remotely true. Ayyadurai was responsible for inventing an email management system that he named “EMAIL” but this happened long after email itself, which has had multiple contributors over many years. The Washington Post eventually offered this “clarification” (my emphasis):

Clarification: A number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called ’email,’ establishing him as the creator of the ‘computer program for [an] electronic mail system’ with that name, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

Except … that “clarification” confuses copyright with patents. Copyright is only over a specific copyrightable work, in this case the specific code Ayyadurai used. Copyright does not establish Ayyadurai as the creator of the electronic mail system, merely an electronic mail system, and certainly not the first one.

A profile of Ayyadurai in Time Magazine called him “the man who invented email,” which is probably why the Smithsonian got interested. But even the Time article states right at the beginning that Ayyadurai actually just holds a copyright on “EMAIL” rather than email more generically.

In the intervening years, Ayyadurai’s claim that he invented email has been debunked six ways from Sunday. But apparently Huffington Post can’t read or do research, because it has been running a multi-part series on Ayyadurai’s “invention” of email. And when confronted by the facts, HuffPo doubled down.

Techdirt (one of my favorite techie blogs) has posted three separate articles on Huffington Post’s series. Techdirt explains:

The problems are that (1) email was invented long before 1978, (2) the copyright is merely on the specific software code, not the idea of email, and (3) while Ayyadurai may have independently recreated the basics of email (and even added a nice feature), none of his work was even remotely related to what later became the standards of email. What’s most sickening about this is that as part of this new PR campaign, Ayyadurai is ridiculously arguing that the reason no one believes him isn’t because he’s simply wrong, but because they can’t stand to believe that ‘a dark-skinned immigrant kid, 14 years old,’ invented email, and that it was done in ‘one of the poorest cities in the US’ rather than at a famous university.

The entire series of articles is well worth reading if you are at all interested in the history of email and the controversy. Techdirt asks Why Is Huffington Post Running A Multi-Part Series To Promote The Lies Of A Guy Who Pretended To Invent Email?

They conclude,

It’s unclear why Huffington Post is publishing this ludicrous and disproven narrative. It’s unclear why one of the biggest names in PR [Larry Weber, who led off the series] is involved in all of this, though you can take some guesses. But there are facts, and they include that ‘electronic mail’ existed long before V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai wrote his program as a precocious teenager. Huffington Post is either not disclosing a paid-for series of posts (which would be a massive ethical breach) or they’ve been taken for a ride. Neither option speaks well of HuffPo and its journalistic integrity.

Yesterday Techdirt posted Huffington Post Finally Responds, Stands By Its Completely Bogus, Totally Debunked ‘History Of Email’ Series.

Basically, no matter where you start to dig in, nearly everything about Ayyadurai’s claims is incredibly sketchy, or outright disproven and debunked widely. It’s incredible that Huffington Post has decided to stand by this and merely repeat debunked claims.
[snip]
[T]he folks over at Huffington Post (the ones who still believe in journalistic integrity) might want to take a closer look at what’s going on over there.

This controversy isn’t over yet. It may call for popcorn. Pass the butter!

LATE UPDATE (3:35 p.m. EDT):
Huffington Post And The View From Bogustan: Standing Behind Blatantly False Claims Isn’t Journalism

CommunityMy FDL

Over Easy: Who Invented Email?

You've got mail

You’ve got mail!

Let’s take a break from the sad and depressing news of the past week and look at an amusing controversy involving a Huffington Post multi-part series about the “history” (scare quotes intentional) of email. As Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers are fond of proclaiming, “Boooogus!”

Back in 2012, The Washington Post and other media outlets were all over a claim by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai that he had “invented email” in 1978. That claim was totally false, and was based on misconceptions about email, software and copyright law. The WaPo reported at the time that,

The Smithsonian has acquired the tapes, documentation, copyrights, and over 50,000 lines of code that chronicle the invention of ‘EMAIL,’ a program created by V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai when he was a 14 year-old high-school student in New Jersey.

But this isn’t remotely true. Ayyadurai was responsible for inventing an email management system that he named “EMAIL” but this happened long after email itself, which has had multiple contributors over many years. The Washington Post eventually offered this “clarification” (my emphasis):

Clarification: A number of readers have accurately pointed out that electronic messaging predates V. A. Shiva Ayyadurai’s work in 1978. However, Ayyadurai holds the copyright to the computer program called ’email,’ establishing him as the creator of the ‘computer program for [an] electronic mail system’ with that name, according to the U.S. Copyright Office.

Except … that “clarification” confuses copyright with patents. Copyright is only over a specific copyrightable work, in this case the specific code Ayyadurai used. Copyright does not establish Ayyadurai as the creator of the electronic mail system, merely an electronic mail system, and certainly not the first one.

A profile of Ayyadurai in Time Magazine called him “the man who invented email,” which is probably why the Smithsonian got interested. But even the Time article states right at the beginning that Ayyadurai actually just holds a copyright on “EMAIL” rather than email more generically.

In the intervening years, Ayyadurai’s claim that he invented email has been debunked six ways from Sunday. But apparently Huffington Post can’t read or do research, because it has been running a multi-part series on Ayyadurai’s “invention” of email. And when confronted by the facts, HuffPo doubled down.

Techdirt (one of my favorite techie blogs) has posted three separate articles on Huffington Post’s series. Techdirt explains:

The problems are that (1) email was invented long before 1978, (2) the copyright is merely on the specific software code, not the idea of email, and (3) while Ayyadurai may have independently recreated the basics of email (and even added a nice feature), none of his work was even remotely related to what later became the standards of email. What’s most sickening about this is that as part of this new PR campaign, Ayyadurai is ridiculously arguing that the reason no one believes him isn’t because he’s simply wrong, but because they can’t stand to believe that ‘a dark-skinned immigrant kid, 14 years old,’ invented email, and that it was done in ‘one of the poorest cities in the US’ rather than at a famous university.

The entire series of articles is well worth reading if you are at all interested in the history of email and the controversy. Techdirt asks Why Is Huffington Post Running A Multi-Part Series To Promote The Lies Of A Guy Who Pretended To Invent Email?

They conclude,

It’s unclear why Huffington Post is publishing this ludicrous and disproven narrative. It’s unclear why one of the biggest names in PR [Larry Weber, who led off the series] is involved in all of this, though you can take some guesses. But there are facts, and they include that ‘electronic mail’ existed long before V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai wrote his program as a precocious teenager. Huffington Post is either not disclosing a paid-for series of posts (which would be a massive ethical breach) or they’ve been taken for a ride. Neither option speaks well of HuffPo and its journalistic integrity.

Yesterday Techdirt posted Huffington Post Finally Responds, Stands By Its Completely Bogus, Totally Debunked ‘History Of Email’ Series.

Basically, no matter where you start to dig in, nearly everything about Ayyadurai’s claims is incredibly sketchy, or outright disproven and debunked widely. It’s incredible that Huffington Post has decided to stand by this and merely repeat debunked claims.
[snip]
[T]he folks over at Huffington Post (the ones who still believe in journalistic integrity) might want to take a closer look at what’s going on over there.

This controversy isn’t over yet. It may call for popcorn. Pass the butter!

LATE UPDATE (3:35 p.m. EDT):
Huffington Post And The View From Bogustan: Standing Behind Blatantly False Claims Isn’t Journalism

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msmolly

msmolly

I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."