The Mail On Sunday Thang

For those of you who've been following this little saga in a state of jittery excitement, and also for anyone who's shuffled by and wants to know the whole story, here's the tale of a man, a British newspaper and an internet. It's topping fun.

It started when the British Sunday tabloid newspaper the Mail on Sunday (the MoS, perhaps not to its friends, but to us from now on) emailed me asking if they could use the Things page in their next edition, offering £800. I was very pleased and flattered that they liked the page, but said that - because of Stuff Happening just a couple of weeks previously (more on this later in the year, perhaps) - I had to reply, with agonising regret, that 'No, they couldn't use it'.

I imagined that was the end of the matter and had a glass of milk.

Next thing I know, it's Sunday afternoon and I get a message from my friend Penco saying 'Have you seen the Mail on Sunday? I think you ought to. Because, um, you're in it.' I flew to a local shop and bought (at the cost of one pound) the paper. It fell open at the feature (it really did, that's the kind of thing real life does sometimes) and there was a full page lifted almost verbatim from Things. There'd been some standard sub-editing to fit their house style (yes, so did I), Mil and Margret had become Colin and Karen and there was a photo of a couple which I assume the MoS thinks its readers will identify with more than a baggy-eyed idiot with bright red hair and his psychotic German girlfriend - otherwise it was complete cut and paste. Even more annoying than changing my name to 'Colin' (a point about which I've been legally advised to make no further comment) was that neither the web page nor I were mentioned anywhere. It was presented purely as if the MoS had written it itself.

I was irate in several leaping ways. First, as I'd had no further contact with the MoS, my natural assumption was that they'd printed it without the intention of paying me at all. Higher up, they'd wholly ignored my polite refusal to use what I'd written. (In law, I've discovered, this is called 'flagrancy' - a delightful word that has that bonus of sounding pleasingly like some sort of weird sexual practice). Biggest of all, though, was that because I got no credit whatsoever, people might visit Things and simply tsk out "Ack - here's some tosser who's just ripped off the Mail on Sunday and passed the writing off as his own." That would be a tad annoying at any time, but with the Stuff Happening became really quite nigglingly displeasing.

Problematically, I was due to leave for Germany the next day, which rather inhibited my investing in a bandana and storming into the MoS's offices with a heavy machine gun spraying lead justice. So, I contacted my chum J Nash. Truly, he is a man to have around in a crisis. In fact, you can usually contact J Nash anyway and he'll bring his own crisis. We decided to draw the matter to the attention of The Panel.

Many of us on The Panel have worked together at some point, but that's incidental. It exists as a fluid email group devoted to pessimism, dangerous gossip and, on Tuesdays, the destabilisation of various nation states. Its members include NTK's Dave Green, Cam Winstanley (a former special effects technician, now of Total Film, who once advised me about dealing with a persistent burglary problem I was having with detailed instructions on how to make and lay homemade landmines), bed-hopping PC Gamer writer (and sometimes sinister The Register informer) Kieron Gillen and The Reverend Stuart Campbell, who kills people.

The Panel took a dim view of the MoS's actions.

On another front I talked to Nice Girl Hannah. Hannah is a woman I pay to be my friend. You see, due to Stuff Happening, it had become clear that I know nothing whatsoever about more things than even I suspected. There were only two solutions: become clever (which I haven't the time to do and play Unreal Tournament) or get an agent. Getting an agent seemed ludicrous. That's what proper people have. Bumbling nonentities from Wolverhampton have never had agents. It's just silly. And embarrassing. Still, it was clear that the Stuff Happening was too large for my brain, so, an agent it had to be. Purely by asking the only two people I vaguely knew who had any contact with agents, I got in touch with Hannah.
I was still quite, quite ashamed to be getting an agent, so meeting her for the first time was an exhaling relief. Hannah isn't how you imagine an agent will be. She is what you'd get if you asked a mad scientist to construct an agent in his castle-top laboratory. Her hair, alone, not only defies convention, but several UN conventions. She also, delightfully, works for Curtis Brown. Minorly, Curtis Brown are a major London agency, far more importantly it means I can say 'Yeah, I'm with Curtis Brown' in the pretty secure knowledge that people will imagine I play bass guitar for a Detroit soul singer and am thus hugely groovy and someone they really should go to bed with. Thus, I had no hesitation in signing a bit of paper saying that Ms Hannah Griffiths and Curtis 'Yo! How you feeln' tonight Fort Worth?' Brown owned everything down to the laces in my shoes.

Meanwhile, back at the narrative...

I caught a coach to Germany (Margret and kids were flying out later) and Hannah set about calling the MoS to ask them for £2 billion and a waiver that said that I could, at any time, go round and throw bags of soot at the editorial staff.

I was staying at Margret's folks' place in a town just outside Stuttgart. Hannah could phone me there (Marget's father can't speak a word of English and was reduced to paralysing laughter by Hannah's German, but it was possible to talk). Even better, I could go to a local internet cafe and answer emails. There were quite a few.

The Panel was doing everything from spreading the word among the press and contemplating the legal possibilities to drawing up a programme of civil unrest. I had FTP access, so I added a bit to the Things page explaining the situation and crystallising my feelings about it. In response, I got a terrifying deluge of mail from people, well, just everywhere. Without exception it was supportive. And also surprising - I got mails from people (Oh. My. God.) who said they've been following the page for ages; rather than, as I imagined, it being a place people happened upon once, smiled wryly, then skated off again never to return. I got offers of free legal advice from Australia. Americans roaring I shout to television programme makers. Someone offered me money from his own wallet towards legal costs. I even got one from a person saying he or she works for the Mail (sent anonymously on a Hotmail account) declaring I ought to hammer the crap out of the MoS in every court in the world. It was actually quite moving. No, really.

Hannah called to say Jim Gillespie (the MoS's Review editor and the person who had made the decision to go ahead and print against my wishes) had offered compensation and pointed out that, if I wished to pursue the matter, then the MoS had in-house lawyers, but it would be very costly for me. She asked what I wanted to do; she was sure I had a case, but it'd be tiring and lengthy to pursue it. I nestled the phone comfortingly against my ear and replied
'It's not the money I'm bothered about, it's the principle.',
I glanced down at the stitching coming away from the pocket of my trousers,
'And the money.'
Hannah agreed to continue asking the MoS for the shirts off their backs. We didn't think they were going to give at all, it was just so they couldn't pull a bit of cash from their back pocket and walk off without giving the matter another thought. As I say, 'principle'.

I now had to leave for the southern tip of Germany for the next bit of our holiday, to a village called Oberstaufen where the internet has not yet penetrated. Lord help me - I was going offline.

Before I left I gave J Nash the password for my NTL account, so he could confer with Hannah and do anything necessary while I was marooned away from cyberspace.

Next, an email arrives from the MoS's lawyers threatening to sue me for the explanation I've put on the Things page and how it allegedly defames Jim Gillespie (purely as shorthand, by the way, throughout this he was referred to as Copyright Jim).

Tragically, this email arrives while I'm in a place in the Austrian Alps with no net access and no phone. Thus, knowing nothing whatsoever about it, my response is a series of flowing parallel turns on a ski run at Balderschwang. I am deft.

The MoS's lawyers also got in touch with Hannah (I found out all these things, by the way, when I returned to the German cybercafe and logged on to 'You have 1,101 new emails'). She called J Nash. J Nash is the most utterly unthreatenable person who's ever been. (He's also even more dumbly stubborn about principles than I am - this is a man who walked out of his job as editor of a magazine over a point of principle so esoteric that there are still only four people in the world who claim to understand it.) His reaction to the MoS's legal threat was, in Hannah's words 'very cool'.

Being a splendid chap, however, and mindful of the absent me, what he did was to remove anything from what I'd written that could in any possible way be used for ammunition by the MoS and, further, move the remainder onto his server stating at its new home that it had nothing to do with either Hannah or me.

The MoS's throbbing legal mind didn't think this sufficient and contacted Hannah again suggesting she ought to tell her client and his friend J Nash to grow up (Huh-uh-huh-uh-huh, Beavis - she said 'up'). J Nash's ISP was also contacted by the MoS's legal wing and asked to shut him down as his site contained 'defamatory material'. It didn't.

I don't even want to get into the details of what went on then, as they're horribly messy, or at least appeared to be so to me when I returned from skiing (skiing quite brilliantly, it's important to add) to read the whole thing in flashback in a German cybercafe at the rate of 2DM per 15 minutes. The upshot was that the final email from Hannah I collected in Germany said that she'd received a cheque for £1,600 from the MoS and (more importantly) a letter apologising for their unauthorised use of my work. They said they hoped that would be the end of this matter, and it, as far as I'm concerned, mercifully and conclusively is.

Immediately I returned home, I took the money from the MoS to the offices of a local charity, outside which I'd arranged a meeting with a man from whom I bought a bin liner full of crack and four prostitutes. Hurrah!

There are several things about this whole unpleasant business I'd like to rub over in conclusion.
Obviously, there's the whole issue of copyright of stuff on the Net. Or rather how it's viewed in some areas. But I'm not going to labour that; you're all intelligent people with strong teeth, bright eyes and shiny coats - you've already grasped those yourself.
Next, I'd like to hope George Thwaites is OK. Mr Thwaites is Deputy Editor of the review section at the MoS and the person who originally emailed me. I have had no contact whatsoever with him since, but word on the street has it that he was (a) off with flu when it was decided to ignore my refusal to print and (b) is 'a nice bloke'. I hope, then, that he didn't get harangued by any morally arid, self-inflated weasels over making the initial (and perfectly decent) offer, as it clearly put the MoS in a far worse position, legally. Partly due to the flagrancy thang, but also because they'd offered money. J Nash and Stuart Campbell (with contributions from others - Panellists among them, in fact.) had a website they had done stolen, wholesale, and stuck on the cover CD of a magazine. One of the two arguments the magazine's publisher's made was that, as the site was just funny and well-written rather than selling anything or requiring money be paid to view it, it was 'worthless'. George Thwaites's offer of £800 would have prevented the MoS from ever using this argument, of course. I hope his simple good manners didn't mean his getting asked 'Why didn't you just steal the stuff without asking, you moron?' while being shaken by the lapels by some slavering, urine-soaked figure from some part of the Associated Newspapers Ltd organisation.
I'd like officially to thank all the people who helped out. J Nash and Nice Girl Hannah, of course. The Internet's very own The A Team, The Panel. All those in the media - The Independent, The Guardian, The Register and so on who selflessly and in a spirit of true malicious glee spread news of the story (the good people at The Register were especially gleeful, for obvious reasons).
Finally, a smashing 'Cheers' to everyone who wrote offering support, advice, good wishes or, best of all, simply a stream of foul-mouthed abuse directed at the MoS. The response was unexpected and punch-in-the-face staggering. Not only can I not hope to reply to everyone personally, but it'll be some time before I've even managed to work through all of the mail backlog - there were thousands, for God's sake. I suppose some of the ones I've yet to read could say, 'Tsk, stop whining, you git,' in which case I hope a tramp sneezes in your face. For everyone else, a strainingly huge thank you; it was genuinely appreciated.

Returning from Germany on the coach, where I typed most of this, they showed the film Notting Hill, and I cried like a tiny baby. That's not strictly relevant, but shows I'm really sensitive, eh?

J Nash's record of events is here. It is far more detailed, but neglects to mention what an excellent skier I am.

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