The latest in corporate sleaze comes from Que Corporation, which has just published a Macintosh book called The Little Mac Book by Neil Salkind. Hmm, that sounds familiar. Looking on my bookshelf, I see a slim volume entitled The Little Mac Book by Robin Williams. That’s strange, I didn’t think you were allowed to do that sort of thing, but apparently copyright law does not apply to book titles. Now that I know this I’m going to make a killing with my upcoming novel called The Iliad. Mine will be easier to read and probably shorter too. Homer can suffer.
Unfortunately, Robin Williams is suffering too. She’s often confused with Robin Williams the actor, and whenever I’ve recommended her book to someone, I always have to add, "That’s not Robin Williams the actor, although the book is excellent." No, this Robin Williams is a teacher at Santa Rosa Junior College and is a single mother of three. With all that to handle, I’m impressed she managed to write a book at all, much less one that’s as good as The Little Mac Book. For those of you who have not seen or heard of The Little Mac Book, it is a quick but complete introduction to the world of the Macintosh and is probably the best I’ve seen. I talked to April at Peachpit Press, the small Berkeley company that publishes The Little Mac Book, and she said that although Que’s book certainly hurts Peachpit’s sales, Robin Williams is the true victim. As an author of sorts myself, I can understand the pain of seeing your hard work undercut by a massive and impersonal corporation.
The cynical view of the situation is that Que Corporation saw how popular The Little Mac Book became in the year or so that it’s been out, knew that companies can’t copyright titles, and decided to cash in on Robin’s work. Peachpit is small, so Que was undoubtedly not worried about incurring the legal wrath of a publishing giant like McGraw-Hill or Microsoft Press. April at Peachpit said that she didn’t think the move was intentional or malicious, but I have trouble believing that the largest publisher of computer books, Que, would have been completely unaware of the popularity of Williams’s book. The person I called at Que wouldn’t comment on the situation, although that was probably just because she didn’t know. As with many unknown situations, if you don’t assume maliciousness, you have to assume ignorance on the part of Que. I’m not sure if that is much better, and it certainly won’t make Robin Williams happier.
It does surprise me that a title is not considered part of a book to the extent that it is covered by copyright law, especially since name of software and publications can be protected in various ways. I know it wouldn’t go over well if I decided to put out a HyperCard-based spreadsheet and called it Excell, and several years ago Infocom had to change the name of its product newsletter from the New Zork Times to the Status Line because of some lawyers from the New York Times masquerading as grues. Interestingly enough, one person on the Info-Mac digest suggested that perhaps this sort of case would not fall under copyright law, but under fraud, since Que was misrepresenting their book. Unfortunately, very few real lawyers frequent the nets, so as usual we have no legal opinions on the subject.
Robin Williams wrote an open letter to Que, and I quote. "There is nothing I can do about your undermining the sales of my book. There is nothing I can do about your riding on the wave of my book’s popularity. There is nothing I can do about the people who read the reviews and think they are buying my book and get yours instead. There is nothing I can do about the fact that you will seriously affect my livelihood that I have struggled so hard to create."
There may be nothing Robin Williams can do, but there are things that we can do. I would encourage you to write or call Que and complain about their marketing tactics. You can also write or call Peachpit to show your support, and most importantly, you can buy or recommend The Little Mac Book by Robin Williams to friends who are getting into the Mac. Peachpit has just released the second edition of the book, which includes a chapter on System 7. If you can’t find it at your local bookstore or computer store, first chastise them soundly and then order it directly from Peachpit Press for $14.95 plus shipping and handling. If I were in charge of Peachpit, I would also consider renaming the book "The REAL Little Mac Book."
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