Invention of Email: A Response to the Washington Post Ombudsman

Over the weekend the Washington Post delivered its response to a storm of protest over last week’s story claiming that the Smithsonian had “honored” V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai as the “inventor of email.” This came in the form of the “Reader Meter” column written by Patrick B. Pexton’ the Post’s Ombudsman. See

Part of that protest came from a message I posted to the SIGCIS list which was subsequently used in stories posted in tech blogs such as Gizmodo and techdirt.

Pexton's column does offer a general implication that something about the story would, in an ideal world, have been done differently. However he does not concede any specific error, and concludes that “Kolawole did the due diligence for the story, and she responded to the readers within a reasonable time frame. That’s all an editor can do.”

Pexton does not choose to defend Ayyadurai’s relatively specific (and easily debunked) claim that his was the first system to include from, to, cc, bcc and subject fields.

Instead, in the manner of a drowning man clutching as straws, he falls back on what, to him, appears to be proof that Ayyadurai must have invented something important. It's a copyright form.

 We do know that the guy who copyrighted the terms “email” and “e-mail” and who developed and copyrighted some of the computer code and underpinnings of the modern versions of e-mail that we all use is an instructor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai. And he did some of his e-mail work when he was 14, 15 and 16 years old, as a New Jersey high school student.

The Smithsonian decided to honor him in February, and take all of the documentation of his youthful work….

There are three important claims in there. All of them are false.

1) Ayyadurai “copyrighted the terms ‘email’ and ‘e-mail’.”

2) Ayyadurai created “some of the computer code and underpinnings of the modern versions of e-mail that we all use”

3) The Smithsonian decided to honor him (beyond merely accepting his donation).

Let’s take them in that order.

Has Ayyadurai copyrighted the terms ‘email’ and ‘e-mail’.

No. In fact nobody who knew the first thing about copyright could possibly believe that he did. Copyright grants exclusive rights over the reproduction of a creative work to its author for a fixed period. The author may choose to grant requests for its reproduction, often in return for money.

So, if the word “email” was copyrighted then I wouldn’t be able to reproduce it. Nobody could write it or say it without getting Ayyadurai’s permission. Maybe he’d want ten cents every time. Maybe he’d grant permission only to people who agreed not to challenge his claims. (There is a tradition of fair use, but that isn’t usually taken to allow reproduction of the whole work, so maybe we could use the letters “e” and “l”). Of course the only thing you’d achieve by copyrighting a new word is making sure that it never caught on.

This is why the law does not allow anyone to copyright individual words, terms, or even titles. Ever notice that multiple, unconnected books have the same title? Perfectly legal.

What Ayyadurai has copyright on is the code of a computer system he submitted to the copyright office in 1984 and a user manual from 1982. This would support a claim that he was the author of this program and its manual. It does absolutely nothing to support any claim that this was the first email program.

The appropriate form of intellectual property protection for a word or short phrase would be a trademark, registered with the USPTO. That would reflect a judgment that the phrase had not previously been registered and would provide exclusive commercial use. Ayyadurai does not have a trademark on the word email.

The open question is whether Ayyadurai was the first to contract “electronic mail” down to “e-mail” to name his program rather than just to “mail” as on most systems. That’s actually an interesting little footnote-worthy detail that has been rather obscured by his claims to have invented email.

Did Ayyadurai create “computer code and underpinnings of the modern versions of e-mail that we all use”

Consider the evidence presented on one of his many websites, Presented in loving detail are copyright slips for his user manual and computer code, an entry for the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and a program booklet page suggesting that he was one of many students that year to receive some kind of honorable mention. Finally there is a short 1980 inside page story from the West Essex Tribune, mentioning his “design and implementation of [an] electronic mail system.” It makes no description of any particular novel feature of the system, but does call it sophisticated and useful. Finally, part of a sentence is devoted to Ayyadurai in a story on incoming students in MIT’s Tech Talk in 1981.

This falls so far short of supporting a claim that his code “underpins the modern versions of e-mail that we all use” that it’s hard to know where to start. Let’s say that there are two main problems.

(1) The underpinnings for modern email had already been created elsewhere by 1980. It’s not just ARPANET email, the direct precursor of today’s Internet based protocols. The concept had been widely distributed to the public in books like Toffler’s The Third Wave (1980) and Hiltz and Turoff’s Network Nation (1978). Electronic mail had been the main subject of articles published in magazines like Business Week since at least 1975. That was when office automation companies (IBM, DEC, Xerox, etc) began to promote electronic mail as a key feature of their current and future products. Email systems were offered by commercial timesharing providers, and widely used inside large technology companies. The Xerox PARC email system included a recognizably modern GUI client program. Email was being built into Unix as a standard feature.

(2) Ayyadurai does not seem to have published any papers describing his work or distributed its code to others. There is no obvious direct path from being one of 12 children in New Jersey to receive an honorable mention in a science competition that year to laying the underpinnings for all email software in use today. There would have to be a number of steps in between where the ideas in the system are widely reported and everyone working on developing email decides to drop what they were doing previously and copy them. A short profile in a small local newspaper doesn’t quite do that. So the onus would really be on him to show exactly how a system that nobody ever heard of (except loyal readers of the West Essex Tribute or office workers at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey) came to lay the foundation for all subsequent work on email.

Did the Smithsonian decide to honor Ayyadurai in February, and take all of the documentation of his youthful work.

No. It’s clear that the Smithsonian did accept a box or two of materials from him for its archive. In as much as it honored him it was by accepting this donation and not, as Pexton suggests, through some separate activity. It did not present an award, host a gala dinner, or do any of the other things that come to mind when someone is being honored.

The Smithsonian recently issued a release clarifying the reasons for the acquisition. This notes

In accepting these objects, the museum did not claim that Ayyadurai was “the inventor of email,” as some press accounts have alleged.

Exchanging messages through computer systems, what most people call “email,” predates the work of Ayyadurai.

The statement basically says that it is interesting to preserve material about a small, obscure and unknown email system as a complement to the big government funded and commercial efforts we were already aware of. It also mentions relevance for historians interested in computer education during the era.

An Aside

Pexton’s opening suggests that because the truth is inherently unknowable there’s no point actually trying to find it out, which is funny as it’s generally humanities scholars who get accused of postmodern disregard for empirical truth, moral relativism or nihilism:

Who invented e-mail? Crikey, I don’t know. Maybe Al Gore.

But to properly determine who did what in the multi-year, organic development of electronic messaging would take a fleet of patent lawyers months and years to sort out.

If only, one is tempted to speculate, society had somehow produced a group of people whose work was to investing months and months, sometimes even years, sorting through tangled claims and masses of contradictory sources to produce a coherent and well supported narratives about the past. We could call them “historians.” They could write books and articles, and then people who needed to find out about the past could read their conclusions without needing to hire patent lawyers.

Seeing this kind of thing published in the Washington Post is really shameful. (Gosh, I hope nobody copyrighted that word). Pexton reads more like a defense lawyer for a journalist than a representative of the reader. It’s like the efforts of lobbyists to create spurious uncertainty over the health risks of tobacco or existence of climate change. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people who could plausibly claim to have achieved some kind of significant incremental “first” in the development of email. Untangling the role of each would be a lot of work. On the other hand there are billions of people who clearly didn’t invent email. Finding this out about someone is pretty easy. Unfortunately for Pexton and the Washington Post, V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is one of the billions of people who didn't invent email. No hedges or qualifiers needed.

Thomas Haigh is chair of SIGCIS and an Associate Professor of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee.