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Zick Rubin’s columns on the lighter side of publishing and intellectual property law.
How the Internet Tried to Kill Me By Zick Rubin
WHEN I Googled myself last month, I was alarmed to find the following item, from a Wikia.com site on psychology, ranked fourth among the results:
“Zick Rubin (1944-1997) was an American social psychologist.”
This was a little disconcerting. I really was born in 1944 and I really was an American social psychologist. Before I entered law school in midlife, I was a professor of psychology at Harvard and Brandeis and had written books in the field. But, to the very best of my knowledge, I wasn’t dead.
I knew that the report of my death could be bad for business, so I logged into Wikia.com and removed the “1997.” But when I checked a while later, I found the post had reverted to its prior form. I changed it again; again someone changed it back. Apparently the site had its doubts about some lawyer in Boston tinkering with the facts about American psychologists.
When I complained to Wikia.com, I got a prompt and friendly reply from its co-founder, Angela Beesley, sending me her “kind regards” and telling me that she had corrected the article. But when I checked a week later, the “1944-1997” had returned. So I e-mailed her again (subject line: “inaccurate report that I am dead”), and got the following explanation:
“My change to the page was reverted on the grounds that the info included in this article was sourced from Reber and Reber’s the Dictionary of Psychology, third edition, 2001. Is it possible the page is talking about a different Zick Rubin? The article is about a social psychologist.”
I didn’t doubt that the Dictionary of Psychology was a highly authoritative source, and yet I persisted in wondering why Reber — or, for that matter, Reber — would know more than I would about whether I was alive or dead.
The situation reminded me of my favorite children’s book — “The Bear That Wasn’t,” by Frank Tashlin — in which a factory is built around a bear while he is hibernating. When the bear wakes up, no one believes that he is a bear; everyone is certain that he is a malingering factory worker “who needs a shave and wears a fur coat.” The bear keeps protesting, “But I am a bear.” Ultimately, his confidence in his own identity as a bear is shattered.
So I should have known better than to write back to Ms. Beesley with: “I am the social psychologist.”
She didn’t respond.
Like “The Bear That Wasn’t,” I began to wonder whether the statement, “Zick Rubin (1944-1997) was an American social psychologist” might be correct after all. My last psychology textbook was published in 1993, and there wasn’t much evidence of me in the psychology world after that. Maybe I was too close to the situation, and Reber and Reber knew more about the matter than I did.
I thought I ought to look into it. I found that Reber and Reber’s book was now in its fourth edition, which was published in 2009 by Penguin Books. When my copy arrived from Amazon, I found a description of the “love scale” that I had once developed and a reference in the biographical section: “Rubin, Zick (1944-97), American social psychologist.”
Needless to say, I had to take this report seriously. This was not just some unreliable wiki, but a bona fide reference work by a respected publisher that has been around even longer than I have. And now that I had been made aware of my death 14 years ago, I began to feel some twinges, starting in my right elbow and extending to my fingertips.
As a media lawyer, I flirted with the idea of proving my existence by suing Penguin Books for defamation. But some quick research disabused me of that approach. According to the common law rule, I discovered, a false report of death is not on its own considered libelous. If Reber and Reber had reported that I had died in some particularly disreputable way, I might have a case. Without that, I was not only dead, but also out of luck.
Being quite incapacitated by now, I started to put my affairs in order. But just as I was about to take down my shingle, I got up the courage to check Google one more time. This time the item was in the No. 5 position, and it had — magically — been changed:“Zick Rubin (born 1944) is an American social psychologist.”
I took a huge breath and felt the air fill my chest. Wikia.com had made the gutsy call that I was a reliable source on my own existence. I was an American social psychologist once again.
Zick Rubin is a publishing and copyright lawyer.
Copyright © 2011 by Zick Rubin