Laying Out All The Evidence: Shiva Ayyadurai Did Not Invent Email
from the a-review-of-the-facts dept
As you may have seen, last week we settled the lawsuit that Shiva Ayyadurai filed against us in early 2017. No money exchanged hands, but we did agree to post a link at the top of the 14 articles that he sued over. The text of that link says, “Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai’s Response to this Article and Statement on the Invention of Email.” You can read his link, and you can read our articles. As I’ve said in the past, I urge you to read both and make up your own mind.
Nothing in our settlement stops us from continuing to report on Shiva Ayyadurai’s claims to have invented email, and given that Ayyadurai has now fashioned himself a First Amendment freedom fighter, I am hopeful that he will be supportive of our use of our free expression rights to respond to his “response.” Among the many statements that response page includes is the following:
Other unethical individuals and internet rags colluded to simply erase the facts and ridiculed journalists such as Mo Rocca of CBS’ Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation Show and Doug Aamoth of Time Magazine, who shared the truth about email’s origin. These individuals included trolls at TechDirt, who parroted false histories of email history to create bogus citations for the heavily censored and manipulated Wikipedia, with its constant revisionism and purges.
But we stand by the information we’ve provided. Nothing in Ayyadurai’s statement shows our posts to be “false” or “bogus,” and indeed we have now uncovered additional evidence that continues to support our argument that Shiva Ayyadurai did not invent email, including some new evidence that suggests Ayyadurai himself was aware of this back in 1982.
Once again, as I’ve said multiple times in the past, all of the evidence suggests that Shiva Ayyadurai was an incredibly bright kid who accomplished something truly exceptional and praiseworthy: he built a functional email system for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) in Newark, New Jersey, somewhere between 1978 and 1980. If he simply stuck to highlighting that impressive accomplishment, that would have been one thing, and would have likely earned him the level of praise he deserves. The problem is that, since 2011, Ayyadurai has insisted that his email system for UMDNJ was the first true email system, and thus that he “invented” email. The evidence disagrees with him, and as we’ll show, that evidence includes statements from Shiva Ayyadurai himself.
One of the most comprehensive debunkings of Ayyadurai’s claims comes from Thomas Haigh, the technology historian we’ve quoted at length in our previous stories on Ayyadurai. Haigh’s detailed research is worth reading as well, and we’ll quote from his summary:
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is not a member of the MIT faculty and did not invent email. In 1980 he created a small-scale electronic mail system used within University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, but this could not send messages outside the university and included no important features missing from earlier systems. The details of Ayyadurai?s program were never published, it was never commercialized, and it had no apparent influence on any further work in the field. He does not ?hold the patent for email? or have a copyright on the word email, though in 1982 he did register a copyright claim covering the exact text of a program called “EMAIL.” The U.S. Government has not recognized him as the inventor of email and he did not win the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for his program. Electronic mail services were widely used in the 1960s and 1970s and were commercially available long before 1980. To substantiate his claim to be the “inventor of email” Ayyadurai would have to show that no electronic mail system was produced prior to 1980, and so he has recently created an absurdly specific and historically inaccurate definition of electronic mail designed to exclude earlier systems. Ayyadurai has not even been able to show that he was the first to contract ?electronic mail? to ?email? or ?e-mail? ? his first documented use is in 1981 whereas the Oxford English Dictionary shows a newspaper usage in 1979. Despite Ayyadurai?s energetic public relations campaign, which presents him as the victim of a racist conspiracy financed by corporate interests, he has not received support from any credible experts in email technology or the history of information technology. His claims have been widely debunked by technology bloggers and articles based on them have been retracted by the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.
Ayyadurai’s “response” to our postings fails to deal with nearly all of the actual details that both we at Techdirt and Haigh have laid out. It just repeats the same claims that our posts, and Haigh’s research, have shown to be inaccurate. Rather than go line by line repeating the same things we’ve said in the past, I wanted to focus on the larger thrust of Ayyadurai’s more recent claims.
The shifting story
In his response to our posts, Ayyadurai opens with the following claim:
In 1978, when Shiva Ayyadurai was a 14-year-old Research Fellow at the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (today, known as Rutgers Medical School), he wrote 50,000 lines of software code to create an electronic system ?the first of its kind? to replicate the myriad features of the interoffice paper-based mail system, which included many of the key components of modern day email, including the Inbox, Outbox, Drafts, Folders, Trash, Attachment, Address Book, Compose, Forward, Reply, Return Receipt, and the Memo, with the (now ubiquitous) terms, ?To,? ?From,? ?Date,? ?Subject,? ?Cc,? and ?Bcc.?
The details here are important. The 1978 date is a key one that Ayyadurai has focused on, as is his definition of email to “replicate the myriad features of the interoffice paper-based mail system.” In this post, we’ll explore both of those things.
First, as Haigh has detailed, Ayyadurai’s story of the “invention of email” has shifted over time in response to some of the incontrovertible facts that were laid out. For example, Haigh notes that in Ayyadurai’s earliest claims to have invented email, he set the date as 1980, not 1978, only to change it later:
Ayyadurai?s recent statements highlight his new insistence on applying the date 1978 to all aspects of his ?invention.? This can produce some odd results ? the site features an image from the 1982 code submission below a heading ?EMAIL was named in 1978 in FORTRAN IV.? As mentioned previously, his original infographic timeline identified 1978 as the year in which ?the challenge? to produce the system was made, 1979 as the year in which ?the attributes of a memo… are converted into an electronic system? and 1980 as the year in which ?the first version of the system is designed and deployed for use.? In 1981 he submitted an entry based on the system for the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and in 1982 he mailed his code to the copyright office and received a registration number. The copyright form he submitted identifies the code as having been written in 1981. His timeline shows 0 ?EMAIL accounts? in 1978, 2 in 1979, and 50 in 1980.
Indeed, the original infographic that Shiva himself created pretty clearly claims that he “invented email” in 1980:
However, later, Ayyadurai apparently started using the 1978 date instead, which does appear to be the year he was given the assignment to create such a system. An updated infographic on Ayyadurai’s site now has the 1980 heading changed to “Using Email” instead of “Inventing Email” and you may notice a few other changes as well.
Of course, when he had an operational program going matters, in part because Ayyadurai himself has said that the implementation matters. For example, when people pointed out the many Request for Comment (RFC) documents defining email, such as RFC 733 published in 1977 (and which defines many email concepts, including the “to” “cc” “bcc” “subject” “comments” “reply” “sender” etc.), Ayyadurai’s lawyer, Charles Harder, dismissed those as “a document, not software.” Harder went further on that point:
“It was, at best, a specification attempting to provide a standardization of messaging protocols and interfaces. RFC 733 was not ‘e-mail underpinnings’ as some have said, nor equated as e-mail: the electronic software system intended to emulate the interoffice, inter-organizational paper-based mail system, created by Dr. Ayyadurai at UMDNJ in 1978.”
Ayyadurai, himself, on a page on his website that he claims is for debunking myths about what we’ve all been highlighting, says something remarkably similar to his lawyer:
This quote, ??email underpinnings were further cemented in 1977’s RFC 733, a foundational document of what became the Internet itself.? is a misuse of the term ?email? because the RFCs (Request for Comments) and RFC 733 were written documentation not a computer program or code or a system. Moreover, this quote and others such as ?In 1977 these features and others went from best practices to a binding standard in RFC 733.? are hyperboles. RFC 733 was drafted in November 1977 and was an attempt at standardization of messaging protocols and interfaces; it should not be conflated as ?email underpinnings? with the electronic system of interlocked parts defining the interoffice paper mail system.
So, given that Ayyadurai and his own lawyer insist that merely writing out a document is not enough, the actual date when Ayyadurai implemented his code seems important. And it appears that he originally claimed it was in 1980. In researching this, we obtained Ayyadurai’s full deposit copy for his 1982 copyright filing (on his site, he reveals the registration application, and not the details of his actual submission for his user manual, and in a moment you may understand why). At the beginning of the user manual he submitted to the Copyright Office, he notes in a letter dated August 18, 1982 that “after nearly three and a half years of development, I recently finished a program called EMAIL which allows one to send and receive mail via the HP 1000 computer system.”
Only recently finished? Interesting. At the very least, this also provides more support for the idea that Ayyadurai did not actually begin even working on his program until 1979 (not 78), since three and a half years prior to August of 1982 would be early 1979. The letter does say that most of the work was completed in the first two years, with the most recent two being more about testing and adding features, though it doesn’t indicate which features those were — and that seems to matter quite a bit to Ayyadurai’s claims as well, since Ayyadurai’s definition is dependent on a large number of specific features.
Indeed, as Haigh also notes (and you can see in the Charles Harder quote above), much of Ayyadurai’s claim focuses on his rather specific definition of email. Which also has changed over time. According to Haigh’s tracking:
One of the five main tabs on Ayyadurai?s new site is ?Definition of email.? This presents a short version (?email is the electronic version of the interoffice, inter-organizational paper-based email system?) and two lengthy checklists. The first checklist presents 32 distinct features of the traditional mail system, all of which he claims were necessary (?if any one component was taken away?you no longer had a functioning interoffice mail system.?) The second checklist repeats these, with some additional items added, and places a check mark by each one to indicate that Ayyadurai?s system had that capability. There are 87 of these check marks. If I understand his argument correctly then this signifies that a system must possess 87 specific features to properly be called email.
Has this definition been widely accepted since 1978, as Ayyadurai claims? No it has not. Indeed, Ayyadurai?s own website did not include these definitions of email until recently. The old site (prior to June 2012) offered a quite different six point definition of ?an E-Mail System.? These six points were: User-Friendly Interface; A Rich Set of Features; Network Wide; Security and Login; Enterprise Management; Database and Archival. The definition was originally presented as the work of one Matthew J. Labrador. Labrador claims to have ?met Shiva in 1981 in a computer science class? and to have been impressed by his modesty. He recently been motivated by inaccurate reports on email origins to ?do my own research… to provide readers with a more comprehensive and holistic history.? Ayyudari?s resume lists Labrador as a student whose bachelor?s thesis he supervised in 1990. Labrador, whose prose style closely resembles Ayyadurai?s own, expressed awe at Ayyadurai?s accomplishments (?in writing this History, I was amazed at the vision that Dr. V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai had even as a 13 year old, in developing that first E-Mail system?), acknowledged his graciousness in providing materials, and proceeded to show that Ayyadurai?s system met this unorthodox six point definition. (Since the page was captured in June 2010 Ayyadurai has stopped hyphenating, switching his entire site first from ?E-Mail? to ?EMAIL? and now to ?email.?)
(Update, 2014: Ayyadurai’s 1997 book The Internet Publicity Guide includes the following definition: “Electronic Mail (e-mail) Personal messages sent between users of the Internet.” The section on “E-Mail: Electronic Mail” fills pages 13-15. So Ayyadurai himself used to treat “e-mail” as a simple contraction of electronic mail and favor a very broad definition).
Since we’ve now seen what Ayyadurai submitted to the Copyright Office, it is, at best, unclear that his program in 1982 actually had most of the functions he has described as the definition of email. Even just by going with the description in his response to us, it should include:
Inbox, Outbox, Drafts, Folders, Trash, Attachment, Address Book, Compose, Forward, Reply, Return Receipt, and the Memo, with the (now ubiquitous) terms, ?To,? ?From,? ?Date,? ?Subject,? ?Cc,? and ?Bcc.?
However, if all of those features were included in his original software, they do not appear to be well documented — or documented at all in the instruction manual he submitted to the Copyright Office. The manual shows a limited set of commands. It does not show attachments or “bcc”, for example:
The code submitted to the Copyright Office shows a fairly limited set of commands as well, not as comprehensive as his 87 point checklist would suggest:
It is possible that there was more to Ayyadurai’s original application. And if it’s true his original system included attachments, it might have predated that feature showing up in other products such as ccMail, which had attachments by 1985. However, at least in the code seen in his submissions, it is not obvious that such a feature was part of his initial program, as of 1982. We would be open to seeing Ayyadurai present evidence that he created email attachments before others did, though it would not qualify as having “invented email.”
The first electronic replica of an “interoffice” mail system?
A key piece of Ayyadurai’s current definition of email, beyond the checklist, was the idea that his was the first replica of interoffice mail. From his response to us:
Dr. Ayyadurai named this system ?email,? a term he was the first to create since he was inventing the ?electronic? (or ?e?) version of the interoffice paper-based ?mail? system.
In an interview Ayyadurai gave with Ars Technica, while the lawsuit was ongoing, he made this point very clear:
?These ARPAnet guys, these old guys saying that they?re the ones who invented e-mail. OK?? he continued. ?And I?m telling you, e-mail is the electronic version of the replicated form of the interoffice mail system, and I defined it. I called it E-M-A-I-L. These are facts.
On the “myths” page linked above, Ayyadurai insists that other versions of email don’t count, because (he claims) he was the first to do a “full-scale emulation of the interoffice inter-organizational paper mail system.”
This quote, ?Under ARPAnet several major innovations occurred: email (or electronic mail), the ability to send simple messages to another person across the network,? is a misuse of the term ?email.? The invention referenced here is command-line protocols for transferring text messages, not email as defined to be a system of interlocking parts, such as the 1978 EMAIL platform, a full-scale emulation of the interoffice inter-organizational paper mail system.
This implies that he was the first to come up with the idea of making a system to replicate the interoffice mail system. Again, the evidence to support this claim is lacking. On my desk I have a lovely scan of a September 13, 1976 Business Week article, page 94B, entitled: “When interoffice mail goes electronic.” Amusingly, the third paragraph of that article notes:
In a sense, electronic mail is not new.
You don’t say.
Let’s zoom in on the date on that one, in case you can’t see it:
So, it certainly suggests that there were electronic mail systems replicating the “interoffice mail system” on the market before Ayyadurai began work on his project.
Ayyadurai admits his program was not the first electronic mail system
And here’s where we come back to Ayyadurai’s full copyright filing. Not only did he tell the Copyright Office that he only recently finished the program in 1982, but in that same document he admits that there are other electronic mail systems on the market. Here’s that full first paragraph:
After nearly three and a half years of development, I recently finished a program called EMAIL which allows one to send and receive mail via the HP 1000 computer system. Most of the code was written during my sophomore and junior years in high school and during the high school summer holidays. The past two years have involved quite a bit of testing and the addition of some new features. EMAIL consists of five programs and some several thousand lines of code. I, personally, feel EMAIL is as sophisticated as any electronic mail system on the market today.
We’ve got receipts:
So it certainly appears that back in 1982, Ayyadurai was well aware that his was not the first on the market.
The RAND paper
To argue that his was the first complete interoffice system, Ayyadurai quite frequently cites (but does not link to) a 1977 RAND paper by David Crocker, specifically looking at a particular electronic mail system called “MS”.
According to Ayyadurai’s “response” page, the portions of the report that he quotes:
“… reflect the limited scope of the efforts of these “internet pioneers,” who were narrowly focused on rudimentary text messaging systems and were proposing minor modifications to expand that rudimentary functionality.”
However, that does not appear to reflect what was actually in Crocker’s report, which was focused on one particular program. If you read the full report (and you should!) it notes that it is only talking about “the design of one such program” and further that “Early electronic mail systems have existed on the larger computers,” while explaining that MS is specifically being designed for DEC minicomputers, and that’s its primary differentiator. The paper is not an analysis of the entire email market. Indeed, it says:
One of the earliest and most popular applications of the ARPANET computer communications network has been the transfer of text messages between people using different computers. This “electronic mail” capability was originally grafted onto existing informal facilities; however, they quickly proved inadequate.
The paper notes that as more and more people have used these services, they’ve demanded more and more features and he talks about how there are a variety of attempts to support those features, and those working on MS, in particular, have tackled those demands. The paper does not, as Ayyadurai repeatedly implies, suggest that no one anywhere was working on making an electronic version of the interoffice mail system (indeed, as the Business Week piece above notes, such systems were already on the market). Instead, Ayyadurai quotes two short parts of the fairly long paper, but appears to take them out of context. Ayyadurai claims that “early workers in the field of electronic messaging had no intention to create a full-scale electronic version of interoffice or inter-organizational paper mail system”, citing two separate parts of the Crocker paper.
The first of those reference is Crocker saying, “At this time, no attempt is being made to emulate a full-scale, inter-organizational mail system.” (on page 18 of the PDF I linked to above, which is technically page 4 of Crocker’s document). Note that in Ayyadurai’s version, he inserted an extra “interoffice.” Crocker says, “inter-organizational.” That seems like a key difference, especially since there is little to no evidence that Ayyadurai’s email program was ever used beyond a single organization. Crocker is not saying no effort is being made to replicate the interoffice mail system. He’s saying that, for now, the developers working on MS (not other email products) are, in fact, focusing just on interoffice email — not inter-organizational, because that’s not the current focus of the project.
Indeed, much of Crocker’s paper is describing why and how MS is, in fact, modeled on an interoffice mail system. There are pages describing how MS is being developed to mimic interoffice mail so that it’s a model that matches with the human expectations of those who would use it. It talks about how MS uses assumptions about existing models for delivering messages on the assumption that this will be easier for people to understand. On the very next page after the quote that Ayyadurai relies on to prove that no one was thinking of making an interoffice mail system, Crocker writes the following:
Within an office environment, messages typically arrive at a person’s “inbox,” are viewed and perhaps acted upon, and are then filed into an appropriate folder which contains related messages. Later, the person may wish to take other actions relating to the material in the folder. All of this activity occurs on the person’s desk. Several folders may be open at one time.
Two of the more common actions people take are responding to a message and forwarding a copy of it to others. In both cases, material in the original message determines portions of the news message. For responses, the title (“Subject”) and the names of the originator and recipients are used; and for forwarded messages, only the name(s) of new recipient(s) must be added. Another common action is the creation of a new message for a third party.
This sounds quite similar, in fact, to Ayyadurai’s own description of how he went about crafting his email system. It’s just that Crocker’s version comes a few years before Ayyadurai’s.
From there, Crocker goes deeper in explaining how MS is being developed to deal with users’ expectations based on existing interoffice mail systems. In fact, there’s a lengthy discussion about whether or not MS should use similar terms to the traditional interoffice mail system, because it might make it easier — and specifically discusses secretaries who have little experience with computers.
The final way in which MS attempts to conform to users’ expectations is in the vocabulary used to describe and invoke its processing. Concern for this level of detail has been questioned, on the theory that humans are quite good at learning new terms and, in fact, they are not consistent in their own use of vocabulary. That is, there probably does not exist a set of terms which is consistent among users and, even if there is, using that set rather than another will probably not greatly affect a user’s performance with, or attitude towards, a message system.
In the belief that computer-oriented users and designers cannot be used as references for testing the presence and nature of such vocabulary in the potential user population, several informal experiments were conducted. Subjects were secretaries who had little or no experience using computers. In each case, relatively neutral language was used to explain a typical office situation which required use of a single word for referencing a particular object or action. The subject was then asked what word or symbol was most appropriate in that situation. In most cases, subjects immediately had a term they thought best and the terms were relatively consistent among subjects.
For example, a message being created is called a “draft”; the structured part of a memo is called the “headers”; and placing a message into a folder is called “filing”.
In other words, Crocker is highlighting how testing of their system resulted in non-computer users insisting on the similarities to… the interoffice mail system. He later notes that when they tried to use more technical vocabulary, it “often evoked laughter.” Indeed, Crocker’s conclusion is that modeling the system on interoffice mail is the most likely way to build adoption.
The second Crocker quote that Ayyadurai highlights is the following:
To construct a fully-detailed and monolithic message processing environment requires a much larger effort than has been possible with MS. In addition, the fact that the system is intended for use in various organizational contexts and by users of differing expertise makes it almost impossible to build a system which responds to all users? needs. Consequently, important segments of a full message environment have received little or no attention and decisions have been made with the expectation that other Unix capabilities will be used to augment MS.?
Ayyadurai uses that to suggest that no one but himself seriously considered building a full replica of the interoffice mail system as a computer program. But, again, that appears to be taking Crocker’s quote very much out of context. First, he is just discussing one program: MS, which was designed for a specific set of computers, rather than the whole of the electronic mail market. You can read this quote on pages 21 and 24 of the pdf (page 7 and 10 of the internal document — the middle two pages are a diagram, explaining the jump in page numbers). The context here is that Crocker is talking about how MS (and not all other email systems) is specifically being built in a modular way so that lots of others can jump in and provide other features and interfaces to cover whatever specific need they have. Indeed, Crocker notes that this document is just to basically describe the nature of how MS mimics an interoffice mail system’s underlying structure so that anyone else can implement the version that works best for them. Just a few paragraphs before the quote Ayyadurai cites, Crocker writes:
This document, and the style of the resulting system implementation it specifies, is a bit unusual and deserves some explanation. Most system specifications address either the human interface or the internal design — how the system appears to human users or what data structures and function primitives are to exist. The specification for MS is at neither level, although it has more of the flavor of an interface description. In particular, the document may be viewed as specifying the human interface, minus the command language. That is, the functions, to be made available to human users, are described; but the precise way in which users formulate requests to MS is not.
The reason for this idiosyncratic specification style is that several very different command interfaces are being constructed and it is hoped that specifying the system at this level will assist interface builders in realizing and accommodating some of the user issues described above. (The concern for proper vocabulary, therefore, is more representative of a lobbying effort than of a guarantee for what is provided in the command interface.) Experience to date suggests that the construction of interfaces is, in fact, simplified.
He then goes on to describe three separate interfaces for MS that have already been constructed, and makes it clear that he’s effectively “lobbying” for the developers building on MS to use the language and approach that matches the interoffice mail system because that will make it easier for users to grasp the purpose of the system.
That gets us into the context that Ayyadurai leaves out. Crocker is saying that MS itself is a lower layer set of functions, and the idea is that others can develop their own interfaces to match their own environments’ specific needs. The quote that Ayyadurai cites, about it being “almost impossible to build a system which responds to all users’ needs,” is Crocker noting that different offices have very different requirements, and the nature of MS is not that those working on it will build a system that works everywhere, but that anyone can implement their own interface to match that office’s needs.
From there, there are another 30 pages or so of Crocker laying out the details of MS, including how it basically offers up the underlying functionality to recreate whatever sort of interoffice mail system you might like, leaving each interface builder to determine how best to implement.
In other words, a full reading of the document does not support Ayyadurai’s claims, and, again, suggests that the idea of an electronic interoffice mail system was very much on the minds of many different developers.
The naming of email
That leaves one final claim that Ayyadurai insists is central to his argument: that he was the first to name email and got “the copyright” on email. In his response to our posts, he states:
Dr. Ayyadurai named this system ?email,? a term he was the first to create.
He also states:
On August 30, 1982, Dr. Ayyadurai obtained the first U.S. copyright for this system, ?EMAIL?. At the time, Copyright Law was the only mechanism to protect software inventions because the U.S. Supreme Court decisions at the time held that software could not be patented.
Thomas Haigh’s summary responding to the claims of having named email is pretty straightforward:
?Electronic mail? was widely discussed in the 1970s, but was usually shortened simply to ?MAIL? when naming commands. However, the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition online) gives a June 1979 usage (?Postal Service pushes ahead with E-mail?) so Ayyadurai was not the first to use this contraction in print.
Tellingly, even the Oxford English Dictionary thinks that the 1979 date is probably too late. It has a standing public request seeking evidence of an earlier contraction from “electronic mail” to email, noting that they found it in the journal Electronics on June 7th and that this does not suggest the coining of a new term at all, but rather one that readers would already be familiar with.
Meanwhile, as Haigh highlights, the first documented proof of Ayyadurai’s program being called “EMAIL” is not until 1981. An earlier article about his program in 1980 does not mention such a name. Also, it’s pretty clear that even if there is some evidence that shows that Ayyadurai contracted electronic mail down to email first, that’s not what made the word “email” popular.
The program name ?EMAIL? is not mentioned in the 1980 newspaper article on Ayyadurai but does appear in his 1981 Westinghouse competition submission. By that year the name EMAIL was in use by CompuServe. Compuserve had offered timesharing computer access and electronic mail to businesses for years. In 1979 it launched a new service, aiming to sell otherwise wasted evening computer time to consumers for the bargain price of $5 an hour. A trademark application (later abandoned) that CompuServe made for ?EMAIL? listed 1981/04/01 as its first use by the company, which fits with this May 1981 message mentioning CompuServe?s ?EMAIL program.? By January 1983 ?Email?? (for trademark) was part of CompuServe?s advertising campaign.
For years CompuServe users could type ?GO EMAIL? to read their messages. Whether Ayyadurai or CompuServe was the first to adopt ?EMAIL? as a program name it is clear that CompuServe popularized it.
In other words, the earliest evidence Ayyadurai has for his program being called EMAIL is the 1981 Westinghouse submission. But 1981 is also the same time that Compuserve was offering email. The newsgroup mention of “Email” in 1981 attributed to Compuserve certainly shows that Compuserve was using it commercially by at least May of that year. It’s entirely possible that both Ayyadurai and Compuserve came up with the same shortening of electronic mail to email, but there is no evidence suggesting that it was Ayyadurai who made it popular. And, as Haigh notes, coming up with the name is kind of meaningless when talking about who invented something. See, for example, all these other inventors:
Even if Ayyadurai does eventually produce evidence that he used the linguistic contraction ?email? in 1978, and this turned out to be the earliest documented usage, what would that really signify? We acknowledge John Logie Baird as the inventor of TV as well as television, even though he called his machine the Televisor. The Wright Brothers didn?t call their flying machine a ?plane? in 1903 and the Oxford English Dictionary has no reference for this contraction of Aeroplane being used until 1908. Yet we not honor the first person to shorten the word as ?the inventor of the plane.? Alexander Graham Bell patented an ?acoustic telegraph? in 1876 but is today remembered as the inventor of both the telephone (a name he did adopt) and the phone (a contraction the OED does not show usage for until 1880). Marconi worked for years on what he called a system of ?wireless telegraphy? but is nonetheless remembered for this effort as the father of radio. It is likewise natural and appropriate for us to think of the electronic mail systems of the 1970s as email, even though they would not have been called this at the time.
As Haigh also notes, while it’s been scrubbed, Ayyadurai originally claimed he had invented “electronic mail.”
In any event, Ayyadurai?s previous website identified him as creator of the first ?Electronic MAIL system,? which further undermines this line of argument. Likewise, his infographic includes for 1979 the heading ?Memos to Electronic Mail.? In 2010 he was hyphenating the name of his system as ?E-Mail?. His claim to be the inventor of email is also a claim to be the inventor of electronic mail.
And, related to this, as we’ve described at length in our previous articles to which Ayyadurai has never provided an adequate response, the copyright on his particular program, even if it’s called “Email”, does not establish him as the inventor of email. Haigh compares it to songs called “rock and roll”:
Lou Reed wrote a song called ?Rock and Roll.? So did Led Zeppelin. Both the songs were copyrighted by their respective publishing companies. Neither of them owned the term ?Rock and Roll? as a result of writing these songs. Neither of them had to show that they had invented rock music to receive the copyright.
To make the point even clearer, as I have noted in the past, Microsoft quite clearly holds a copyright on a software program called “Windows.” Yet no one would ever credit Microsoft with “inventing” the concept of windowed interfaces on computers. Anyone familiar with that history will remember that Steve Jobs saw the GUI interface at Xerox PARC and then used it for the Mac. Microsoft later made its own version after seeing the success of Apple’s — leading Apple to sue (unsuccessfully). Microsoft still retains the copyright on “Windows,” but I’ve yet to see anyone claim that Bill Gates “invented” windowed graphical user interfaces (let alone Bill Gates himself).
The only response that Ayyadurai provides when people point this out is a weird bit of misdirection, suggesting that copyright was the functional equivalent of a patent back in 1982. He also suggested that he didn’t copyright it earlier because you couldn’t copyright software prior to 1980.
In 1978, when Shiva created email, there was no mechanism to protect software inventions, through either Copyright or Patent;
In 1980, the Copyright Act of 1976 was amended to become the Computer Software Act of 1980, which allowed software inventors to have their software inventions protected through Copyright. Even then the Supreme Court did not recognize Software Patents;
And, in the “response” to our posts that we’re now linking to on our earlier stories, Ayyadurai again makes this claim:
On August 30, 1982, Dr. Ayyadurai obtained the first U.S. copyright for this system, ?EMAIL?. At the time, Copyright Law was the only mechanism to protect software inventions because the U.S. Supreme Court decisions at the time held that software could not be patented.
Regarding the patent claim, that’s not entirely accurate. As can be seen in this PBS show about Martin Goetz, the first software patent was granted in 1968. What is true is that in a series of Supreme Court cases in the 1970s and early 1980s (Gottschalk v. Benson, Parker v. Flook, and Diamond v. Diehr), the Supreme Court greatly limited what kinds of software were eligible for patents, rejecting “pure algorithms” (in Gottschalk) but allowing them if there’s some “inventive concept in [their] application” in Flook. Ayyadurai may have thought, after Gottschalk/Flook, that his software would not qualify for a patent, although if his email program was an “inventive concept” it likely still would have. But it is entirely reasonable to believe that, as a teenager, Ayyadurai was unaware of the ins-and-outs of patent law at the time. However, this many years later, with several actual patents to his name, one would hope he would be more accurate.
Either way, that doesn’t change the fact that the copyright in a single program does not establish him as the “inventor” of email. It establishes him as the author of his particular program. Again, Bill Gates was not the inventor of windowed graphical user interfaces, even if his company, Microsoft, holds a copyright on Windows. Indeed, Ars Technica spoke to William Roberts, who at the time was the Associate Register of Copyrights, and he pointed out that Ayyadurai’s assertions were incorrect.
We ran this claim past William Roberts, associate register of copyrights at the United States Copyright Office. ?His assertion, as you describe it to me, is not accurate,? said Roberts. That?s because copyright for a computer program simply registers the precise code of that particular program, making it illegal to copy without permission.
Famed law professor Eugene Volokh expressed his opinion on Ayyadurai’s copyright claims after his lawsuit was filed against us, and found it legally dubious:
No ? a copyright registration for a program named ?email? is not the U.S. government recognizing Ayyadurai ?as the inventor of email.? No-one at the Copyright Office determines whether a program (or any other work) is a new invention. (Patent examiners may do that, but the Copyright Office doesn?t.) Indeed, no-one at the Copyright Office runs the program, reads the source code, or tries to compare the program?s description to those of other programs. Indeed, I can today register a copyright on another program called ?email,? ?computer program for electronic mail system.? Just as there can be many copyrighted books with the same title, there can be many copyrighted programs with the same title. (Selling a book or a program with a title that?s confusing may violate trademark law, but that?s a separate matter.)
The function of copyright law is not to recognize inventors of ideas; it?s to protect authors of particular implementations of those ideas. That?s why you can have a thousand different detective stories registered with the Copyright Office, and none of them be the invention of the detective story (or even of a detective story involving a hyper-rational super-observant detective). And it?s why you can have a thousand different e-mail programs ? whether or not called ?email? ? registered with the Copyright Office, and none of them be the invention of e-mail.
And with that, we’ll (hopefully) leave this saga aside. If Ayyadurai would like to respond to this, or to supply evidence to contradict the points and evidence raised above, he is, as always, welcome to provide it. He could have done so any time since 2012 when we first wrote about him and his claims, rather than taking us to court for two and a half years. I still believe that Ayyadurai should, in fact, be praised for what he accomplished as a teenager — building a working email system as he apparently did, at the time he did, is no small feat. Our only issue with his claims is the decision to argue that his impressive creation was actually “the invention of email.” It was not.
On a related note, we’d like to be able to continue to do this kind of reporting, but to do that, we need your help. Please consider donating to the Techdirt Survival Fund to help us recover from the financial harm we’ve suffered in fighting this lawsuit for the past two and a half years.