Stopping spam with poetry

Okay, this is cool: Here’s an innovative way to stop spam — and hit spammers with an intriguing use of copyright law.

Habeas, an anti-spam corporation, has created a set of special “x-headers” that you insert into your outgoing mail. Essentially, it’s a little watermark that indicates that your email is genuine and valid. ISPs can set up a simple filters that allow email through that includes these special x-headers.

But hold it — couldn’t the spammers themselves also put these x-headers into their junk mail, and thus get past the filters? Sure. Except here’s the thing: The headers are written in the form of haiku — a copyrightable art form. (That’s an example you see above.) If a spammer copies one of Habeas’ x-headers and uses it to send out millions of pieces of spam, they’ve just broken copyright law on a massive scale: They have illegally distributed copies of an artwork. Habeas can launch an enormous lawsuit against any spammer, and indeed, they’ve already successfully shut down a few.

As Habeas points on its web site:

Fighting spam with poetry and the law
The thing that makes The Habeas Warrant Mark so unique is that it is written as haiku, an ancient Japanese poetic form. Since our headers are actual works of art, Habeas can use the powerful legal tools available for copyright and trademark protection to prosecute violators.

I could not possibly love this more! Email servers spraying poetry across the Internet — and using it to bust the most annoying advertising ever.

I’ve written pretty extensively in recent months about the peculiar literary appeal of auto-generated text, and about ‘bots that write poems. But what really charms me is how the Internet is causing a strange, quiet revolution in the utility and prominence of poetry — an otherwise neglected art form. Poetry, with its short, tight compression of expression, is perfectly suited to applications that need to send tiny bursts of text; and poetry’s constant remixing and resampling of former literature makes it oddly ‘bot-like in nature. Indeed, of all literary forms, poetry is the one closest to computer programming itself: An art form where compression, efficiency and elegance are highly prized.

Which is why it’s probably no surprise that Habeas users have begun to write their own haiku and send them in to Habeas. You can read some examples here, including this one:

Dear old friends send mail.
As do incorporeal
robot pretenders.

-James Kobielus

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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