Robert X. Cringely Is Really a Nobody; That's the Problem

InfoWorld and Mr. Stephens Both Sue Over the Rights To a Fictitious Supernerd

By Don Clark, Staff Reporter
The Wall Street Journal

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 Cringely name.

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."

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 do.

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 free-lanced 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 free-lancing 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. Stephens left.)

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, Calif.

Insists Mr. Stephens: "I am Bob."

Copyright (c) 1996, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.