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'Inventor of Email' Cites Copyright Registration as Proof

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 23, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Shiva Ayyadurai wants to be known as the man who created email -- so much so that he once trademarked the phrase "the inventor of email." Ayyadurai says he came up with "the electronic mail system as we know it today," in 1978, when he was a 14-year-old boy in New Jersey. It's an assertion some support. Others, however, have questioned Ayyadurai's claims, stating that email existed well before 1978. Techdirt was just one blog to make that argument, and is currently facing a $15 million libel suit from Ayyadurai as a result.

Here's one interesting wrinkle from this complicated case: Ayyadurai's suit makes the somewhat puzzling claim that the U.S. government has legally recognized him as email's inventor -- because he registered the copyright for email.

That Can't Be Right, Can It?

There's plenty to say about the suit (we covered it earlier here), but Eugene Volokh recently pointed out one of the stranger aspects of Ayyadurai's litigation. (Though perhaps not as strange as its connection to Hulk Hogan's Gawker-destroying lawsuit.) On his Volokh Conspiracy blog, Volokh notes that Ayyadurai's complaint asserts that, by registering his copyright, he was "legally recognized by the United States government as the inventor of email." Here's the paragraph in full:

At the time of Dr. Ayyadurai's invention of email, software inventions could not be protected through software patents. It was not until 1994 that the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled that computer programs were patentable as the equivalent of a "digital machine." However, the Computer Software Act of 1980 allowed software inventions to be protected to a certain extent, by copyright. Therefore, in or about 1981, Dr. Ayyadurai registered his invention with the U.S. Copyright Office. On August 30, 1982, Dr. Ayyadurai was legally recognized by the United States government as the inventor of email through the issuance of the first U.S. Copyright registration for "Email," "Computer Program for Electronic Mail System," a true and correct copy of which is attached hereto as Exhibit A. With that U.S. Copyright of the system, the word "email" entered the English language.

Volokh takes issue with that characterization. "No -- a copyright registration for a program named 'email' is not the U.S. government recognizing Ayyadurai 'as the inventor of email,'" he says.

Microsoft could register a copyright in its Windows software, and that tells us nothing about who invented Windows. Google could register a copyright in Google Translate, and that tells us nothing about who invented computer translation. Likewise, Ayyadurai's registration of his program with the Copyright Office is not at all the government's legal recognition of him as the inventor of anything.

"Indeed, I doubt a federal judge would even allow this argument to be made to a jury" given its irrelevance, Volokh writes.

Ayyadurai is represented by Timothy Cornell and Charles Harder. (Harder represented Hogan in his suit against Gawker. Ayyadurai, too, sued Gawker. Techdirt first came under fire for complaining about Gawker's settlement with Ayyadurai, over what it called "perfectly true stories.") Volokh emailed them to see just what they were thinking. At publication, he hadn't received a response.

A Footnote on the Etymology of Email

In an argument over veracity and origination, etymology has (at least metaphorical) importance. Which makes the final (and unnecessary) claim at the end of the Ayyadurai's copyright paragraph a bit confusing.

With a flourish, the complaint states that, due to Ayyadurai's copyright registration, "the word 'email' entered the English language." A footnote cites the Online Etymology Dictionary dating the introduction of "email" to 1982, the same year as the registration.

But common sense would indicate otherwise. After all, Ayyadurai's 1978 program was itself called "EMAIL." Even if the word was a complete neologism then, its introduction would predate the claimed copyright introduction to the English language by four years. And, as Volokh notes, the more authoritative the Oxford English Dictionary dates email to 1979.

Even the Online Etymological Dictionary itself looks back beyond 1982 in its email entry. It's illustrative quote, which does not include the word email, is taken from the utopian novel "Looking Forward," by Arthur Bird -- a book that was published in 1899.

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