Lately there are a lot of people proposing what they think are obvious solutions to the USPS’s financial woes. Today we heard one of the stranger suggestions, in a post on the International Business Times web site that starts like this:
It’s not too late to save the U.S. Postal Service, the inventor of e-mail told International Business Times.
You read that right- “the inventor of e-mail”! Now, I’ve been using computers, and email for several decades now, and I had never heard of anyone “inventing” e-mail before. The Wikipedia article on e-mail doesn’t mention an inventor, but notes that a primitive form of e-mail was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair, and says the first ARPANET e-mail was sent in 1971. Arpanet was the predecessor of the Internet.
Oddly enough, V.A. Shiva, the alleged “inventor”, claims to have developed e-mail seven years later- in 1978, when he was a high school student! As proof, the article points out that Shiva “won the U.S. copyright for e-mail in 1982”. Of course, you don’t “win” a copyright, and you certainly don’t copyright an invention- you patent it. Shiva doesn’t claim to own the patent on e-mail, or even the trademark- so what exactly did he copyright?
A computer printout.
Shiva’s company, Echomail, proudly displays the copyright record on its web site. The record states that the “printout” being copyrighted is a “Computer program for electronic mail system.”
In other words, Shiva owns the sole right to publish copies of a computer program he printed out in 1982, which he entitled “EMAIL”. (So you too can “win” the “U.S. Copyright to EMAIL”: just write something, call it “EMAIL”, and fill out the paperwork to register your copyright! As long as what you write doesn’t copy Shiva’s (or anyone else’s) copyrighted work, you’re all set!)
And what exactly did the “inventor of EMAIL” suggest was the answer to the USPS’s problems? Here it is:
Shiva said the USPS could retrain most employees for the 21st century, handling e-mail, scanning and processing documents and doing things they already know.
Shiva doesn’t explain what those “things they already know” are exactly, but later he muses:
For $1 apiece, Shiva suggested, smaller enterprises could hire USPS people to manage their e-mail systems, analyze responses and send responses based upon pre-determined answers.
Sounds like something you’d have, say, a computer do, doesn’t it? And it’s not clear what the “$1 apiece” refers to- e-mails? systems? postal workers? Whatever it refers to, the USPS would need 5 billion of them just to make up last year’s losses! Perhaps the scariest thing in the IBT article is Shiva’s claim that “various government officials have been in touch since the USPS downsizing announcement on Dec. 4”.
For the record, V.A. Shiva, aka “Shiva Ayyadurai”, is an actual “Faculty Lecturer” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology- MIT. Perhaps wisely, his official MIT profile page makes no mention of his claim to be the “inventor of EMAIL”.
Update: After seeing another story about the supposed “inventor of email” in the Washington Post, I took another look at Shiva’s MIT profile page, and discovered that he’s added a sidebar headlined “Inventor of EMAIL”. Maybe it was something we said?