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Shiva Ayyadurai versus Gawker: just who really did invent email?

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 14 May 2016, 13:07 IST

A seven-year-old and his parents, the descendants of a family of farmers, move to the US in search of the American dream. Just seven years later, the boy, once on the verge of dropping out of school, meets a mentor and ends up inventing what we know as 'email'. He then goes on to earn four degrees from the iconic Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and marry a Hollywood actress.

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His achievements were hailed right by everyone from Washington Post to Time and he even had his code inducted into the Smithsonian. It's the stuff movies are made of. But this isn't my pitch to a Hollywood studio.

It's the story of Shiva Ayyadurai.

Except the twists in Ayyadurai's tale don't end there.

Instead of approving scripts for a biopic, Ayyadrai is currently suing American media house Gawker for US $35 million. Why? For claiming he's a fraud.

Back in 2012, Gawker's subsidiary Gizmodo ran an article that systematically laid waste to Ayyadurai's claims shortly after he was profiled in the Washington Post.
Ayyadurai says he invented email. Gizmodo says he didn't. Now he's suing them. Who's really telling the truth?

The piece in the Washington Post is now preceded by both a correction and a clarification. Both try to distance the piece from its earlier, far more simplistic, claims that Ayyadurai was the inventor of electronic messaging. It also does its best to distance itself from other claims that Ayyadurai's code was the first to incorporate the 'cc', 'bcc', 'to' and 'from' elements that are integral elements of email as we know it.

What it does, however, maintain, is that Ayyadurai is the holder of a copyright on a computer program called 'EMAIL'.

So does he have a case against Gawker?

After cases like that of Ankit Fadia -- the Indian hacking prodigy who wasn't - and the even more recent case of whether Craig Wright invented Bitcoin, it's easy to dismiss Ayyadurai out of hand as a charlatan. After all, media houses the world over just sang paeans to the recently deceased Raymond Tomlinson, claiming he was the genius behind modern email.

But Ayyadurai contests that fiercely. In fact, shortly after Tomlinson's death, Ayyadurai tweeted this:

That's right, in one 140-character swoop, Ayyadurai manages to portray himself as a victim of racism, paint Tomlinson's then-employer as a harbinger of death, and vilify his dead peer. Not the classiest of moves, but hey, you'd be pretty upset too if you'd been cheated out of an achievement this big.

It wouldn't be the first time if it were true.

The annals of inventing are littered with cases of stolen credit. Many argue that Rosalind Franklin should've been credited with the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure. Heck, credit for the light bulb, every cartoon's symbolic representation of an original idea, was 'stolen' by Thomas Edison from Nikola Tesla.

So is it that hard to believe that a first-generation American of Indian origin had his moment in the sun stolen by Big Business? Not really.

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Despite that, given how iconic and integral email is to the world - with an estimated 2.6 million users as of 2015 - you'd imagine this would be an open and shut case. The truth though, is slightly more ambiguous.

What we do know for sure is that Ayyadurai's brainchild is certainly not the first instance of electronic messaging. That came far before his creation, an electronic replica of the usual paper-based office communication system, came about in 1978.

In fact, as reputed computer historian Thomas Haigh pointed out, Ayyadurai's eventual alma mater had been using electronic messaging over 10 years before his creation.

Even the elements within the modern email system -- the 'to', 'from', 'cc' and 'bcc' fields that Ayyadurai was originally credited with -- were already in use by ARPANET coders long before Ayyadurai got down to it.

Apart from Ayyadurai, no one else is really interested in laying claim to the title 'inventor of email'.

What puts Tomlinson above the rest is that prior to him, messages were shared between users on one time-share system. Tomlinson appended the program and incorporated the '@' symbol that's synonymous with email today to allow the transfer of messages between systems.

Still, Tomlinson isn't the one who owns the web domain 'www.inventorofemail.com'. That's Ayyadurai. Ayyadurai is also the one who has a copyright on 'EMAIL'.

That second point is pretty much all Ayyadurai has to go on. He coined the term 'email' to describe his program, and as countless people before me have pointed out, that isn't the same as inventing email. Much like birthing a baby isn't the same as naming one.

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More so, apart from Ayyadurai, no one else seems particularly interested in laying claim to the title 'inventor of email' because its current form is the result of the work of many different individuals, the foremost, arguably, being Raymond Tomlinson.

Given all the evidence that counters his claims, you'd hope Ayyadurai would get the message by now. But evidently, Hulk Hogan's recent success at suing Gawker has encouraged Ayyadurai to sue the media house a whole 4 years on from the publication of the article.

Being a successful, educated man of above average intelligence, married to a Hollywood (okay, so it's Fran Drescher) actress, would be enough for most men. Not Ayyadurai, evidently.

But then again, even with his inflated claims he'd still make a better brand ambassador for Digital India, rather than Ankit Fadia.

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First published: 14 May 2016, 13:07 IST
 
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