Fun With Copyright Traps: 10 Hoax Definitions, Paper Towns, and Other Things That Don’t Exist

filed under: law, Lists

Facts are hard to copyright—impossible, actually. This is problematic for people who deal in information; any reference material is factual, and therefore difficult to protect from dirty, lying thieves who want to steal your work. That’s where fictitious entries come in: facts become very easy to copyright when they aren’t true. These are people, places and things that exist only on paper, solely to thwart would-be info burglars.

1. Lillian Virginia Mountweazel

The mythical Ms. Mountweazel was a photographer and fountain designer. Her book, Flags Up!, was purportedly an unmatched collection of rural American mailbox photography. Unfortunately, she was killed in 1973 in an explosion, while on assignment for the equally nonexistent Combustibles magazine. Lillian Mountweazel’s life was a sham, created to protect the contents of the 1975 New Columbia Encyclopedia, but it wasn’t without its perks: her (fake) life would become the subject of an exhibit in Dublin, and her (fake) name would later serve as a neologism for fictitious entries, thanks to a New Yorker article about the next Mountweazel in this list...

2. Esquivalience

The second edition New Oxford American Dictionary was published early in 2005. Almost immediately afterward, a rumor leaked that the NOAD 2E contained a secretly made-up word which began with the letter e. A man with a lot of free time set about isolating the fictitious entry from the 3,128 e-words, using a combination of careful cross-referencing and probably-unhealthy obsession. He narrowed the options to six words: earth loop, EGD, electrofish, ELSS, esquivalience and eurocreep. Of a group of nine lexicographers, six pegged esquivalience as the fraud. This was confirmed by the dictionary’s editor-in-chief, Erin McKean, who said, “Its inherent fakeitude is fairly obvious.” (Fakeitude does not appear in the NOAD 2E.)

3. Zzxjoanw

Rupert Hughes’ Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia of 1903 included the word zzxjoanw, defined as “a Maori word for ‘drum.’” The entry persisted through subsequent editions, well into the 1950s. It was later proved a hoax when someone noticed that there are no Z, X, or J in the Maori language. If you’re wondering, zzxjoanw is pronounced just how it looks.

4. Dog of Norway

The Golden Turkey Awards is a weird 1980s catalogue of obscure and bad films, wherein the authors award movies of poor quality a Golden Turkey. (It’s like a Razzie, only even less prestigious.)

The authors, film critic Michael Medved and his brother Harry, revealed that one entry was a complete hoax, and then challenged readers to discover which movie never actually existed. This time, no cross-references or obsessive searches were necessary: the imaginary film, Dog of Norway, starred "Muki the Wonder Dog"... the same dog featured on the cover of the book with the authors. (That dog’s name was Muki, too.)

5. Agloe, NY

The town of Agloe, New York, was invented by map makers, but the practice of inserting fictional towns, roads, rivers or other geographical has been in place nearly as long as cartography itself. The weird thing that happened with Agloe, though, doesn’t really ever happen: it became a real place. The Agloe General Store was built at its fictional location, prompting the (real) county administrator to declare Agloe an actual town. (Paper Towns by John Green is partially set in Agloe, and one character has a dog named Myrna Mountweazel.)

6 & 7. "The Song of Love" and The Cysterz

Joel Whitburn created a book series based on the Billboard music charts. To throw potential copycats, Whitburn’s pop chart compilations say that, for the week ending December 26, 1955, Ralph Marterie's "The Song of Love" peaked at #84. Sad news for Ralph Marterie, who was probably shooting for a single-digit rank, but it was all okay, because Billboard Magazine didn’t even issue a list that week, and “The Song of Love” was never recorded by Marterie.

In Whitburn’s rock charts, the song "Drag You Down" by The Cysterz makes an appearance, though neither the group nor the song ever did in real life.

8 & 9. Beatosu and Goblu, Ohio

The official state map of Michigan from 1978 includes a pair of hoax entries designed to irk every football fan in Ohio. The chairman of the State Highway Commission (and Michigan alumnus) had Beatosu and Goblu (“Beat OSU!” and “Go Blue!” to Michigan fans) inserted in the Ohio side of the Michigan-Ohio border. They were removed from later editions, but Goblu was briefly of interest again later when it was revealed that Road Pig from G.I. Joe was born there.

10. Philip

In the 1970s, Fred L. Worth began publishing a series of trivia encyclopedias, imaginatively titled The Trivia Encyclopedia, The Complete Unabridged Super Trivia Encyclopedia, and Super Trivia volumes I and II. In order to protect his stake in the trivia encyclopedia market (which was not yet booming), Worth inserted a single entirely false “fact.”

In 1984, Trivial Pursuit hit the market and sold like gangbusters. Unfortunately, the company was about to get sued for a lot more than the $256 million they raked in that first year. Why? Because one answer on the game’s cards was known to only one person—Fred L. Worth, who’d fabricated it years earlier:

The card said the answer was Philip, which was false. In fact, Columbo's name was never revealed, a fact that's been confirmed by both the cast and writers of the show. (Unless you believe this screenshot of Columbo's badge has the answer.) Worth’s suit fingered the creators of the game as well as their distributors; aside from the fictitious entry, he showed that Trivial Pursuit’s creators had lifted his work so completely that the game even included his typos and misspelled words. Trivial Pursuit eventually admitted that they had, in fact, stolen Worth's work for the game—but they had also stolen trivia from a lot of other places, too, which they defended as "doing research."

The case was thrown out before going to trial on the grounds that Trivial Pursuit was “substantially different” from Super Trivia. Worth and his attorneys appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, but to no avail.

Because of Trivial Pursuit’s persistent popularity (and more than a few original versions that are still in play), some shady-looking “fun fact” sites continue to insist that Columbo’s first name was, in fact, Philip.

Image credits: FactFixx, Nerdfighters, and Trivia Hall of Fame.

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June 19, 2012 - 7:16am
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