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Meme Update #20

In this issue:
    Jury orders Henson to pay Scientology $75K for Copyright Infringement
    I Love Oprah!
    Internet Mind Virus Update
    Virtual Pet Update
    Politics as Usual Dept.

Jury orders Henson to pay Scientology $75K for Copyright Infringement

Keith Henson, a California engineer, writer, and early memetics enthusiast, was found liable this week for $75,000 in statutory damages for willfully posting copyrighted material belonging to the Church of Scientology on the Internet.

Henson, who in 1988 published a superb essay on memetics (URL below), posted part of Scientology's "scripture" to the Internet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology on March 30 and 31, 1996. Henson said in his trial that he was alarmed by the activities of what he judged to be a "criminal cult" and that the text he posted was evidence of the group giving its members "instruction for practice of medicine without a license." He said the text instructs church members to treat illness with a device known as an "E-meter." Scientology was previously ordered by the FDA not to use the device for medical purposes and to place warning labels on each one to that effect. The E-meter, which measures electrical currents through the skin, is similar to a simple lie detector and is used in a Scientology practice known as "auditing." Henson felt that the public's need to know about what he considered illegal activity outweighed any possible copyright considerations.

U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte of Northern California had previously determined in summary judgment that the posting was a copyright infringement and did not fall under the copyright law's "Fair Use" exception because it was posted in its entirety and without significant commentary. The jury then awarded statutory damages of $75,000 from an allowable range of $500-$100,000. Under copyright law, all writings are automatically granted copyright protection at the moment of their creation regardless of the presence of a copyright notice. It is not necessary to show actual damages in the case of willful infringement.

Those who wish to donate to Keith Henson's legal battle should send checks to Keith Henson defense fund at:

Berry, Lewis, Scalli & Stojkovic
One Wilshire Blvd., 21st Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90017

Folks who want to help him directly can make out checks, money orders or cash (depending on paranoia level) and send to him as gifts at

Keith Henson
Box 60012
Palo Alto, CA 94306

The transcript of Henson's trial is on line at

Henson's essay "Memes, Genes and Politics" is available on line at

I Love Oprah!

I returned from a trip yesterday to find several messages from friends congratulating me for getting mentioned on the May 12, 1998 Oprah Winfrey Show. Wow! If you are not in the publishing business, let me just say: that's a big deal! Although I haven't seen the tape of the show, reports are that she recommended my book VIRUS OF THE MIND and said it explained a lot about why people behaved in certain ways. Oprah, you are one smart cookie. [Note: if anyone has a tape of the show you would be willing to send me, please email me at so I can see it!]

Writing a book that Oprah or another top-rated talk-show host likes is a great way to help spread your memes. As publishers of books selected for her extremely popular Oprah Book Club know, a mere mention of a book by Oprah can account for sales of tens or even hundreds of thousands of copies. In this case, in the two days since Oprah recommended VIRUS OF THE MIND on her show, wholesale orders are more than ten times their usual level. With a hundred thousand new books published every year, the publicity generated by the memes broadcast into millions of TV viewers is essential to a book's success.

These days publishers are often more interested in how promotable an author is than in the merit of the book. The blurbs in my books mention things like my association with Bill Gates, the fact that I wrote the first version of Microsoft Word, the fact that I went to Harvard -- none of which have much to do with the contents of my books, no matter how important, fascinating, or entertaining those contents may be. Celebrity memes are big sellers -- just look at the OJ trial, the death of Princess Diana, or the Clinton sex scandals to see how easily we are attracted to stories combining celebrity with another of the big push-buttons: danger or sex.

In writing VIRUS OF THE MIND, I put my memes where my mouth was. I used every memetic trick I wrote about to actually demonstrate how easily we get "memed." I wanted people to read the book and feel COMPELLED to go out and spread the word. The result has been steadily increasing popularity, violating the normal trend of a hardcover bestseller which peaks through a big publicity rush and then trails off. VIRUS OF THE MIND is following the rarer pattern of a word-of-mouth bestseller. Word of mouth is a form of self-replication: you read the book, you like it, you spread the meme by telling others about it.

(Actually, even people who hate my book find themselves telling others about it. Go to and check out the review by the guy from Salt Lake City.)

I honestly didn't know if it would work when I wrote it and put the "Warning: live mind virus!" label on the back cover, but apparently it has.

Internet Mind Virus Update

Reader Rudy Nadler-Nir pointed me to Rob Rosenberger's Computer Virus Myths home page, a compendium of Internet virus scares along with recommended books and links. It's quite an interesting site (even though Virus of the Mind is unaccountably missing from the recommended reading). Surf on over to

Here's one of their most recent news blurbs: AN ARTICLE PUBLISHED by the U.S. Army War College says the Russian 666 computer virus can cause heart arrhythmia in humans. It goes on to say that, with the right programming, a computer virus could alter human perceptions or even "inject a thought into [your] subconscious."

Virtual Pet Update

[Thanks to Steve Kalinowski]

In France, a woman driving her automobile ran down a group of cyclists, killing one and injuring others, because she was tending to a "Tamagotchi" virtual baby thing while driving and took her eyes off the road for a moment.

The Tamagotchi survived.

Politics as Usual Dept.

[Thanks to Tim Rhodes for this tidbit]

Representative Tim Moor sponsored a resolution in the Texas House of Representatives in Austin, Texas calling on the House to commend Albert de Salvo for his unselfish service to "his country, his state and his community."

The resolution stated that "this compassionate gentleman's dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future.

He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology."

The resolution was passed unanimously.

Representative Moore then revealed that he had only tabled the motion to show how the legislature passes bills and resolutions often without reading them or understanding what they say. Albert de Salvo was the Boston Strangler.

All the best memes,