Robert X. Cringely
Is Really a Nobody;
That's the Problem
InfoWorld and Mr. Stephens
Sue Over Fictitious Supernerd
By DON CLARK
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Friday, June 14, 1996)
Robert X. Cringely and the Public Broadcasting Service told viewers a lot
about the history of the personal-computer industry Wednesday night. They left
out one interesting fact, though.
Robert X. Cringely doesn't exist.
The host of the three-hour documentary, "Triumph of the Nerds," is really
Mark C. Stephens, one of several authors of a popular gossip column in
InfoWorld magazine written under the Cringely pseudonym. Mr. Stephens, 43
years old, penned the column between 1987 and last December, when InfoWorld
cut him loose. But in a case with enough twists to give anybody an identity
crisis, the magazine and its parent, International Data Group Inc., sued Mr.
Stephens in March for trademark infringement to block his continued use of the
So far, they haven't had much luck. In April, San Francisco Federal Judge
Robert Keeton denied IDG's request to bar Mr. Stephens from using the Cringely
name while the case is in court. The judge also granted Mr. Stephens's
request to have the case moved from Boston, headquarters of IDG, to San
Francisco, where Mr. Stephens filed his own suit. It charges IDG with
copyright infringement for using his Cringely work outside InfoWorld without
authorization. He claims IDG owes him as much as $735,000 and vows not to
settle without at least joint rights to use of the name.
That he even has a chance illustrates some murky nooks in
intellectual-property law, as well as apparent slip-ups by IDG, a closely held
company with $1.4 billion in sales but no lawyers on its payroll. Above all,
the tale is testimony to the opportunistic traits of Mr. Stephens, who came to
realize that the Cringely persona was more valuable than his own, to the
point that some people wonder where Cringely ends and Stephens begins.
"I chose to promote Bob rather than Mark," Mr. Stephens says. "It made sense
to keep my eggs in the most profitable basket."
Cringely, the Series?
In the magazine columns, Mr. Stephens, the third Cringely author, transformed
the character from a Sam Spade knockoff into an oversexed magazine editor who
trades racy repartee with Pammy, a fictional flame. Mr. Stephens has used
Cringely as a platform for a lucrative career outside InfoWorld as an author
and pundit. "Triumph of the Nerds," the PBS show, was based on "Accidental
Empires," a successful 1991 book Mr. Stephens wrote under the Cringely name.
He is working on another Cringely book and a possible TV series, and commands
up to $5,000 for Cringely speeches.
But few outside of InfoWorld know of the ruse. In "Nerds," Mr. Stephens, in
Cringely mode, tooled around Silicon Valley in his red Thunderbird
convertible, interviewing dozens of tech luminaries such as Bill Gates, Paul
Allen and Steve Jobs. Most of them didn't know Cringely is just a pen name.
"It was months before I learned that he wasn't named Bob," says Stephen
Segaller, who co-produced the show for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Blindsided
by the IDG lawsuit, OPB executives told Judge Keeton that reshooting the show
to expunge the Cringely name would expose them to claims from distributors and
broadcasters who had put up money for the show. "The timing was
excruciating," Mr. Segaller says.
Cringely has been an affliction to computer companies since 1986. The popular
column is rife with leaks about products, defects and consumer gripes. But in
the hands of Mr. Stephens, the line between author and alter ego blurred. Old
girlfriends of Mr. Stephens, for example, appeared in the column as
Cringely's old girlfriends-and continued to appear after his ouster. Mr.
Stephens introduces himself as "Bob Cringely," has a credit card in Cringely's
name and sometimes ponders real-life options by wondering what Cringely would
Mr. Stephens's real life, meanwhile, at times reads almost like a novel. He
says he began writing obituaries for an Ohio newspaper at the age of 14 and
freelanced from Lebanon and other hot spots in his 20s. He claims a doctorate
in communications from Stanford University; it says its records show only a
master's degree. An accomplished stunt pilot, Mr. Stephens once blew his
savings on a propeller company.
"Accidental Empires," which helped make Cringely a high-priced pundit, argues
that the industry was shaped by lucky nerds out to impress their friends.
That thesis grates on executives like Mr. Gates, chief of Microsoft Corp., who
also disputes an anecdote in the book that describes the billionaire as
scrounging in his pockets for coupons at a checkout counter. Mr. Stephens
stands by Cringely's account.
InfoWorld initially thought Mr. Stephens's outside activities were good
publicity. The magazine signed a 1989 contract that allowed him to write the
book, while reserving its rights to the Cringely name. But relations soured
between the writer and Stewart Alsop, an industry analyst and InfoWorld
executive vice president. In December 1994, Mr. Alsop fired Mr. Stephens, but
asked him to keep freelancing for $1,500 per Cringely column.
InfoWorld, however, neglected to get Mr. Stephens's approval to use his
articles outside of the magazine. After negotiations over a license to his
copyrights stalled, InfoWorld in December 1995 dumped Mr. Stephens altogether
and demanded that he stop using the Cringely name. Mr. Stephens refused,
demanding that IDG pay him $250,000 for violating his copyrights by publishing
his Cringely articles on the Internet's World Wide Web and elsewhere. That
was when InfoWorld and IDG sued him for trademark infringement.
"The issue is the confusion," explains Patrick McGovern, IDG's chief
executive officer. "We have a terrific column coming out as Cringely, and Mark
Stephens has nothing to do with that at all."
Courts usually side with trademark holders in such disputes. Actor Clayton
Moore, the Lone Ranger in the old television series, was blocked from
appearing in his Lone Ranger mask for five years by a company that was
promoting a movie using a different actor. But in the Cringely case, Mr.
Stephens makes the novel claim that his years of molding the Cringely
character entitle him to joint trademark rights. (The column is still running
under the Cringely name, under at least two different writers since Mr.
Judge Keeton mused in an April opinion that Cringely had indeed become a
jointly created fiction, raising "fundamental" legal questions that might
trouble even a legal Solomon. "The Robert X. Cringely of this litigation," he
said, "is indivisible."
Claude Stern, Mr. Stephens's lawyer, says IDG abandoned the Cringely
trademark by not adequately supervising Mr. Stephens's use of it. Veronica
Devitt, a San Francisco trademark expert, thinks such a defense won't work but
agrees that IDG erred in failing to get a copyright license from him. Says
Mr. Alsop: "We will not disagree with our opposition that we are human and
we've made mistakes."
To some, the case mainly points out the way the telephone and electronic mail
make it easy to sustain a fictional identity, in a way that perhaps can fool
even its creator. "It's a tale of Narcissus for the digital age," says Paul
Saffo, an analyst at the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Menlo Park,
Insists Mr. Stephens: "I am Bob."