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The Anti-Spam Haiku

Anne Mitchell hates spam. But with a little gentle poetry - and the sledgehammer of intellectual property law - she plans to put a stop to it.

SILICON VALLEY, 2002-19-08: As the flood of spam continues to spill over the Net, software to automatically identify and filter it away has been growing in popularity. Sophisticated filters like Spamassassin and Vipul's Razor have been slashing through piles of unsolicited commercial mail that clutter the world's mailboxes.

But what about the mail that absolutely, positively must get through? For some users, the cost just one false positive - one lost message - is just too high. What's needed is an "open sesame" code that lets the important mail through. But how can you universally identify non-spam without unscrupulous spammers using the same code to smuggle in their messages?

Anne Mitchell, a Californian attorney, thinks she has the solution. She's hoping the hefty fines of copyright law, some serious legal muscle, and a poem short enough to fit in a mail header will work wonders.

Here's how it works. Mitchell's company, Habeas, owns the trademark and the copyright on this self-referential haiku:

winter into spring,
brightly anticipated,
like Habeas SWE TM

(Reprinted with permission. The "TM", one imagines, is silent.)

Habeas gives permission for anyone to flag their mail as "Sender Warranted E-mail" (SWE), by reproducing the poem in the headers of their e-mail. Anyone, that is, except for spammers.

Normal Net users can insert the poem for free. Legitimate bulk mailers (with double opt-in agreements), or other companies whose mail caught in spam filters, can pay Habeas to put the haiku in their headers too, dodging the filtering bullet.

But woe betide any spammer trying the same trick. Habeas say they'll push for prima facie trademark infringement on every mistagged e-mail sent - and maximum damages. They've already teamed up with a collection agency to gather the loot.

At launch, Habeas announced partnerships with Outblaze, a Hong Kong-based corporate messaging company, and msntv (formerly WebTV). Spam filtering software SpamAssassin, and are also working with the company to include the haiku in their spam scanners.

The legal trickery is ingenious, and surprisingly full of subtleties for such a brief bit of legalese. Normally a header tag like this would be too short to be covered by copyright, for instance. But the law specifically protects poetry, so haiku is covered. The haiku includes a trademark, too, so it's protected under both forms of IP protection (Habeas has a patent pending on the technique too).

Very clever - but will Habeas be able to keep up with those notoriously scofflaw spammers? Mitchell claims they will - and those they can't catch, they'll put on a blacklist of copyright infringing IP addresses.

If it comes to a pitched fight in court, Mitchell certainly has the background for it. Prior to Habeas, she was director of legal affairs for MAPS, a group that provided a similar database of IP addresses thought to be used by spammers.

ISPs use the MAPS database and blacklists like it to prevent zones of the Internet from reaching their customers. But IP blackholes remain a controversial practice, and MAPS was frequently sued by companies attempting to extricate themselve from its ban - at one point, by three corporations at one time. The organisation also lost support amongst the anti-spamming community when it decided to sue the Gordon Fecyk, creator of one of its blacklists, after he had left the firm.

But Mitchell is confident that Habeas can work without getting drawn into long and muddy legal disputes. "I think we've got all our ducks in a row. Intellectual property law is a stable and known field. And judges understand copyright law a lot better than they do the Internet."



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