Yesterday, Microsoft announced a new search engine called "Bing." Fortune magazine columnist Stanley Bing followed with a press release expressing his "moderate outrage" over his name and "brand" being appropriated by the software giant, and offering his services as a corporate spokesperson in lieu of a lawsuit.
Bing is onto something. The appropriation of brands is epidemic, and the viral nature of the Internet makes it impossible to locate the origin of inspired ideas. In this environment, one's claim on intellectual property is both difficult to substantiate and impossible to enforce, so Bing's "moderate outrage" is the best - actually, uh, only - antidote.
A cursory look around the culture validates the phenomenon. Soft drink giant Pepsi appears to have annexed graphic elements of the Obama campaign's logo. A cheeky fellow named Mario Lavandeira transparently lifted the name of a certain exhibitionist heiress, gave it a Latino twist, and emerged with staggering success as internet celebrity chronicler Perez Hilton. Satirist Weird Al Yancovic has been swiping branded music for decades and converting iconic songs such as Michael Jackson's "Beat It" into YouTube musings on gluttony like "Eat It." TV hits like "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" regularly parody plot lines and cast members from famous movies. And Judge Robert Bork has watched his surname morph into a verb meaning to spike the nomination of a conservative political appointee through withering, media-hyped attacks. "Borking," of course, should not be confused with "swift boating," which means exactly the same thing only from right to left. Then there are personages of politics and letters - Joe Biden, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Maureen Dowd - who have been accused of pinching a well-turned phrase or two to sweeten their rhetoric to little consequence.
I am not an innocent bystander in this affair. Like Bing, who is a personal acquaintance, I am the victim of a parallel appropriation of a piece of intellectual property. In a novel I wrote at the turn of the new millennium, my alter ego, a disgraced political operative, coined a motto for his home state - "New Jersey: You Got a Problem With That?" I referenced this motto in media appearances and in an op-ed I wrote about corruption as a New Jersey status symbol for the New York Times.
Within weeks, the motto was all over the Internet and, to my simultaneous joy and horror, Robert DeNiro, who is New Jersey's patron saint (and, if I may say, a perfect actor to play a character in the movie version of my book), invoked it on a late night interview show. Without attribution, thus the horror.
So, what now? Do I sue DeNiro or the countless others who have trafficked in "my" motto - and who could plausibly claim they thought of it on their own before I did? I think not. There isn't a sane author or journalist in America that didn't know the jig was up the moment web surfers could, for free, thumb through the pages of our books or newspapers online.
The best option is to go back to the medium that aggravated the annexation in the first place, the Internet (you may recall this as the high-tech phenomenon for which a former U.S. Vice-President was deprived proper credit), and, like Stanley Bing, assert one's God-given right to be moderately outraged, and hope somebody goes, "Oh yeah, that dude..." That's about it.
I have advised Stanley Bing (pro bono) to take his moderate outrage even further. After all, it is obvious that the creators of The Sopranos were inspired by Bing's life work when they christened the crime family's hangout, the Bada Bing. Imagine Stanley Bing's sense of abandonment when, after beating a pole dancer to death behind the fictional nudie bar, the sociopathic Ralphie apologized to Tony for "disrespecting the Bing." Amen.
Perhaps writers like Stanley Bing and I have an inflated sense of the credit we're due from an indifferent world. Perhaps we will never be able to prove authorship of intellectual property such as my beloved fictional New Jersey state motto.
Meanwhile, the Microsoft colossus grows, and we quasi-original thinkers beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past to a place where credit is given where credit is due. Feel free to use Microsoft's new search engine to "Bing" the prior sentence if it seems familiar because I have decided to live in our callous times by the creed of philosopher George Costanza: "It's not a lie if you believe it."
You got a problem with that?