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You can't copyright facts. But you can catch people copying fake ones.

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Today we think of piracy prevention as highly technical, completely inscrutable, and made up of complex computer code. It's a sea of acronyms and terminology.

But it wasn't always that way.

These older techniques fought piracy without using a single byte, and they worked pretty well, too.

1) A fake trivia question helped bust a fact stealer. And Columbo solved it.

This is Columbo. He's perfect — except he isn't named Philip.

This is Columbo. He's perfect — except he isn't named Philip.

NBC/Getty Images

If you aren't familiar with the classic show Columbo, starring Peter Falk as the title character, you should go watch it now (it's on Netflix, and it's the best show ever made). It's so good, it even helped solve a real-life mystery.

Mark Evans tells the story in Inquizition, his book about quizzes. A serial trivia book author named Fred Worth had a sneaking suspicion that his questions were being pilfered by other writers. Unfortunately, he had no recourse because it's impossible to copyright obscure facts, since anybody could claim they found them on their own. So Worth built a trap.

In Super Trivia: Volume II, published in 1982, he claimed that Lieutenant Columbo's first name was Philip. The catch is that nobody knew his first name (and most sources say that it later appeared as Frank). Worth's trap worked, and "Philip Columbo" showed up in the 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game.

Worth promptly sued the game's makers for stealing his facts, but the court case never went anywhere. (Though Trivial Pursuit admitted to using Worth's fake Columbo nugget, judges felt it wasn't an actionable offense.) Worth appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, but never found his payday. That said, he did gain the pride of shaming one of the world's most popular board games, as well as inventing a fact that's still wrongly repeated today. Frank — not Philip — Columbo would be proud.

2) Fake paper towns caught map plagiarists

A vintage map

A vintage map.


By now, many readers are familiar with paper towns thanks to popular author John Green, who used the phenomenon as one of his book titles. A paper town is, most simply, a town that only exists on paper. Take, for example, the town of Agloe, New York, which NPR chronicled. Unlike the subjects of other NPR stories, Agloe isn't real.

In the 1930s, Otto Lindberg of the General Drafting Company teamed up with his assistant, Ernest Alpers, to devise an analog anti-piracy measure — they invented a town called Agloe that combined their names, with the idea that copycats would steal the imaginary town as well as the real ones on their maps. Mapmaker Rand McNally took the bait and included Agloe on a later map.

It got weirder from there. In court, McNally said the town was real, using as evidence a store in "Agloe" named the Agloe General Store. Apparently, the owners of that lonely store had seen Lindberg's original map, assumed it was correct, and then named their store for this imaginary town.

Paper towns like Lindberg's have appeared throughout history, and sometimes not intentionally. As Wired notes in a map-happy slideshow, one mapmaker's earnest — but incorrect — depiction of California as an island was copied throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

3) Want to know if a painting's a copy? Look at the books.

This is actually a copy.

This is actually a copy.

Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons

Gilbert Stuart's 1796 Landsdowne portrait of George Washington was instantly iconic (today it sits in the National Portrait Gallery). When he was asked to make copies, including the one pictured above, he developed an ingenious way to identify that they weren't the original.

Look at the books. Stuart inserted an anti-piracy measure into the painting, and it's both subtle (because of its placement) and blatant (because of its spelling error): The book's spine says "UNITED SATES":

"United Sates"

"United Sates."

Google Art via Wikimedia Commons

It worked as an identifier, but the intentional typo didn't diminish the picture's prestige. The United States government bought one of the copies that Stuart made (he made a few others, too), and Dolly Madison even made sure to rescue it from the White House when the building was set afire in 1814. It's still there today, in the East Room.

4) The tale of Lillian Mountweazel, the encyclopedia's best friend

It's a trap. An old, dusty trap.

It's a trap. An old, dusty trap.


In 2005, the New Yorker brought to life the tale of Lillian Mountweazel, a fictitious fashion designer and photographer who liked to take pictures of mailboxes. She was imaginary, used in 1975 to try to protect the New Columbia Encyclopedia's intellectual integrity, albeit with a particularly implausible backstory. There's no record of the Mountweazel trap working — her explosive "death" while working at Combustibles magazine probably tipped off any copycats — but she joins made-up words and entries in other encyclopedias and dictionaries.

What all those old-school traps really mean

Is there any greater meaning to traps like these? There might be a couple. There are a lot of fake facts sitting on Wikipedia, and in an internet era that often uses aggregation (including this article), it's important to seek out verification of every fact.

More cynically, these traps show that for many publishers, their products were a business first and a service second. At the surface, it's sort of outrageous that dictionaries, encyclopedias, and maps would willingly publish something fake just for the chance to catch a copycat. But these traps are a reminder that they were determined to keep the lights on, even if that goal ran counter to their other missions.

If you want to see more of these traps, including ones from the digital era, Wikipedia has a list of fictitious entries. But be warned — they haven't been independently verified, so there could be another Mountweazel hiding among them.