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Attributing a Joke
How do you let people know you were the author when the email gets forwarded around the world without attribution?
It's amazing how problems we run into in the new world of the Internet are really just the same problems of old, often with similar solutions. Here is an example:

There is a custom among many Jews during the second day of the Rosh Hashanah holiday to symbolically get rid of their sins by throwing bits of bread into a body of water, such as a river. The practice is known as "Tashlich" (pronounced "TAHSH-lich"). My friend Robbie Fein had the idea that it would be fun to associate different types of breads with different types of sins. He mentioned this to a friend of his, Rabbi Dick Israel of Newton, Massachusetts. Dick liked the idea, and wrote a humorous piece listing several different sin/bread combinations for a sermon. For example:

For ordinary sins, use - White Bread
For exotic sins - French Bread
For particularly dark sins - Pumpernickel
For complex sins - Multi-grain
For twisted sins - Pretzels
(You get the idea...)

Dick participates in an email mailing list for rabbis, and sent a copy to the list. Like many professional mailing lists, this was supposed to be a closed list, with no sharing of the material outside of the list. Unfortunately, that's not what happened with his piece. Within hours of posting the Tashlich list, people all over the world were forwarding each other copies. Dick was getting back copies of his own joke. While he was flattered by the widespread delight at his humor, he was upset that the attribution to him was removed and didn't travel with it. (In the academic and spiritual world, of course, attribution is important.)

Dick described it this way:

"It was circulated not only with no attribution, but also with spurious attribution. If A sent it to B, B assumed that A wrote it and gave A credit. There were any number of A's who were given such credit. But the worst was when someone showed me a copy of the list which they thought was clever and I responded that I had written it. 'You did not!' He said, 'No one wrote it.' It had become folk-lore and it was apparently my lot to have my fifteen minutes of fame anonymously."

One of the people who wrote him was his friend Richard Dale. Richard had received a copy of the Tashlich piece from a friend in England. Understanding Dick's problem, Richard proposed a Rabbinical solution to keeping the attribution with the text. He suggested that Dick send out an updated list with additional entries. This time, Dick should encode his own name in the text using a method common to the poems of old: make the first letters of each entry spell out his name. Richard found it a little strange to propose a solution that came from his religious background rather than his technical background. It is well known to most Jews that some prayers, such as the Lecha Dodi sung every Friday evening, have the author's name encoded this way (in that case, Shlomo HaLevi).

Dick followed Richard's advice, and now the new version circulates with his name "Richard Israel" encoded inside as the first letters of the last 13 items.

The problem that Dick ran into is an important one in the Internet world. People with content, including images, programs, text, music, video, and more, face the problem of attributing ownership and authorship. "Digital watermarks" in pictures, encrypted file formats, and more are being developed. But the problem is not new. The content creators of hundreds of years ago left "watermarks" in their works that have survived copying for generations. Hopefully we can come up with simple and powerful enough methods so that our signatures will last as long.

The full text of Dick's latest is here: Richard Israel's Crumb List

Dick Israel is the author of The Kosher Pig: And Other Curiosities of Modern Jewish Life (link to Amazon) and Jewish Identity Games: A How-To-Do-It Book (link to Amazon).

This essay was written in early 1999. Tragically, Dick passed away in the summer of 2000. May his memory be a blessing! You can read remembrances of him on a tribute web site.

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