Jacking in from the "I'll Take Two From Column A" Port:
Washington -- A study released by Simba Information, Inc., has left the company scrambling to pay for misappropriated data under the threat of legal action and issuing public apologies to two major universities for lifting copyrighted data without permission.
On August 22, Simba issued a press release touting "an important finding" for Maalox-guzzling executives trying to figure out how to make a buck off the Net.
Simba said its new study, "On the Internet: User Demographics and Trends," showed "most Internet users appear willing to accept the Web as a viable commercial medium." Yow-Za! Finally, hard data that corporate suits could use to justify dumping all that dumb money into risky Web ventures.
Simba Vice President Tom Niehaus is quoted in the second paragraph saying: "Almost 80% of current subscribers say they would use the Web as a commercial medium, provided that, as with any other consumer marketing proposition, the quality of information and services was of fair value to its pricing."
Meanwhile, savvy Web-surfers were left scratching the underbellies of their collective mouse pads. You see, months earlier they could have read the following from a Web site holding research done by the Hermes Project at the University of Michigan Business School: "Almost 80% of the respondents are willing to pay for WWW access and services. However, this is conditional upon appropriate quality and price."
You can almost hear Yogi Berra: "It's like deja vu all over again."
The catch? To read the Simba report you have to pony up $995; to read the Hermes report costs you nothing but time.
Double Bogey: The Simba report draws heavily on Hermes data for the body of its report, despite a specific disclaimer in the Hermes copyright that prohibits the use of the data for profit-making.
Triple Bogey: Simba never bothered to contact the Hermes project to ask permission to use its data.
The Hermes Project director, University of Michigan Professor Sunil Gupta, only learned of the lifted data when another researcher, Jim Pitkow of the Graphics and Visualization Lab (GVU) at the Georgia Institute of Technology, notified him by Email. Pitkow, who had worked closely with Gupta and had completed a similar study of Web demographics, also discovered that his research had been used by Simba, again without permission and against specific copyright disclaimers that the data could not be used in a for-profit venture.
This squalid little data-heist hit the sunshine during a little dust-up in an open conference on the WELL.
After the study was published, it was plucked from the information flotsam and jetsam by HotWired columnist David Kline, who ginned up a trick multiple choice quiz for his readers so they could test their Net-awareness quotient. The quiz was well done and informative, and all was right with the world (just ask O.J.). Then Kline ran into a buzzsaw named Donna Hoffman.
Hoffman, a Net-Celeb in her own right, is a researcher at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. It was Hoffman, and her partner Tom Novak, who helped expose the bogus research underlying the "cyberporn study" done by former Carnegie Mellon University student Marty Rimm, which Time magazine shilled on its July 3rd cover.
After reading Kline's HotWired column, Hoffman admonished him in a public forum on the WELL, taking him to task for promoting stolen research.
She said that Simba had used data from Hermes and GVU without permission, violating copyrights that specifically stated that the information was not to be used "for profit." And at $995 a pop, Simba was definitely pocketing some for-profit coin.
Kline launched a blitzkrieg investigation. Within two hours of being tipped by Hoffman, he confirmed that Gupta's data had been lifted without permission and had confronted Simba's President Alan Brigish with "disturbing facts" that alleged copyright violation.
Brigish tried to buy time, telling Kline that the report had been written by a freelancer, Peter Clemente, and that it was Clemente's responsibility to have obtained all necessary copyright clearances. Nevertheless, Brigish told Kline he would "look into the matter."
Kline reported his findings back to the WELL, noting he wasn't buying Brigish's explanation.
But in trying to fend off Kline's pointed questions, Brigish conveniently left out another piece of the story: fully 50% of the report was actually data published in 1994, lifted from a study by another marketing research firm, FIND/SVP.
FIND/SVP had given permission to Clemente to use a limited amount of data. But when FIND/SVP found out that half the data in the Simba study was their own work, they demanded payment. Brigish balked.
A series of furious point-counterpoint faxes flew back and forth. Finally, under the threat of a lawsuit, Brigish coughed up a payment to dodge a nasty public spectacle. Under the terms of the payment, neither side is allowed to talk about the suit nor divulge the amount of payment, according to sources familiar with the internal wranglings of the case.
While the lifting of the academic research had caught Brigish off-guard, questions about the "keep quiet" payment to FIND/SVP blind-sided him.
When asked to confirm the report that this company paid for the FIND/SVP data -- after the fact -- Brigish bristled: "I'm not going to discuss this further." When I pressed him on the issue, asking him for comments on both copyright issues, FIND/SVP's and the universities', he said I was "pressuring" him and that he was "going to hang up the phone." He left me holding the receiver, the words "I'll get back to you" trailing off in my ear.
My next call went to Gupta. He said the discovery that Simba had appropriated research "really bothers me." He said that all along he had been telling respondents his research was being done "for non-profit" reasons. "Now we learn there are people making big bucks off this," he said.
He worried that if people found out about Simba incorporating their data in a for-profit publication it would put the Hermes project's integrity at risk.
Gupta did acknowledge that he had received a voice mail message from Brigish, notifying him that he was "looking into the matter."
Gupta had a rough idea of what Simba would have to do to quell the matter: "Somehow he [Brigish] has to make clear that what happened ... was absolutely terrible, that's a basic, basic, requirement. A public apology, also, I think s reasonable." And after thinking for a moment he added that Simba might "make a bigger donation to the charities, that would be cool."
Charities? Curious statement, until you realize that as a way of saying "thank you" to the participants in the Hermes study, Gupta makes a payment to three charities. Participants choose their favorites and at the end of the study period, Gupta takes the top three vote-getters (two domestic and one international) and writes a $500 check to each. Nice touch.
So where's freelancer Clemente in all this? To his credit, he readily cops to his mistakes: "I neglected to call the principals [Gupta and Pitkow] of the [university] studies and I should have." Clemente said he was thrown off by the home page of each study that states the research is "free" for anyone to use, as long as proper credit is given, which Clemente does do in the body of Simba report. "I feel terrible about this," he said, adding that he had spoken with the researchers and apologized.
Brigish did make good on his promise to "give a statement." But he wouldn't take calls on it; he sent it via email. In it he insists that "reports of copyright infringement" in conjunction with the Simba study "are incorrect." He says the company "takes copyright issues very seriously." Brigish then throws Clemente to the lions, saying that it was his responsibility alone to gain the proper permissions. But then he tosses in this caveat: "We should have insisted that [Clemente] get written permission to use the data."
I checked with a few other market research firms on their own internal procedures in matters like this. Each one said they have freelancers sign statements asserting that all copyright permissions had been negotiated, but each also double-checks those permissions, a deliberate effort to dodge a Simba-like copyright snafu.
Brigish also acknowledges that "Simba clearly erred" by not citing the sources of its data in the marketing materials for the study, "and we regret this omission." Brigish's statement says he will "seek ways in which Simba and both universities can work together in the future to support Internet demographics research and make that data widely available."
Brigish also promised to issue his statement to reporters. In fact, he sent the statement only to Kline and myself. In addition, the statement was written up on the Cowles/Simba Daily news service. However, the initial press release went out over the Business Wire and PR Newswire, reaching potentially thousands of news organizations. The Simba mea culpa statement was never put on those wires.
In addition, Simbas said it would donate $5,000 to charities as identified by Gupta when his next research study was complete.
That should have settled things, but Gupta claims otherwise. The professor insists that during discussions with Brigish, he agreed to provide "significant research funding" to the universities." But that point never made into the official statement. Gupta says Simba is now going back on the promise. He's also ticked off about the limited distribution of the statement.
Brigish says he doesn't recall the offer to supply funding to the universities, saying only that Simba's Niehaus would discuss with Gupta "appropriate collaboration." Further, he says, via Email to Gupta, that the limited distribution of his statement is enough: "I see no reason to broadcast it widely as a press release."
The whole affair has caused Gupta to wash his hands of any dealings with Simba. On October 8th, he informed Brigish that although he had "hoped to find some positive way of emerging from this episode," none is forthcoming. "Your response to [my concerns] convinces me that you have not fully understood ... and leave me doubtful regarding just how seriously you do take such breaches of ethical behavior."
In a pure "well to hell with you" gesture, Gupta also says he is refusing the $5,000 because it's "best not to have" Simba's name "associated" with the research efforts of the two universities "in any manner." Nor will he entertain "further opportunities of associating with your company."
Righteous indignation is great, but hey, professor, you could have at least made them cut the check for five grand before you bailed on the deal.
Kline, however, does let his indignation hang out. In this week's Market Forces column for HotWired, Kline opens saying: "There is probably nothing more disturbing to a journalist than discovering that he's been unwittingly used to deceive the public." But that's just what happened during "Simba-gate" as he calls it.
"Frankly, it makes my job a hell of a lot tougher," Kline told me. "Do I now have to start checking for copyright violations, too? All I know is, I was misled, and as a result, I misled my readers. That seriously pisses me off."
This episode of "Simba-gate" also hurts the "admirable goal of providing publicly-available, non-proprietary information to the Internet community," Hoffman says. Once the data-for-profit link is made in people's minds to the GVU/Hermes studies, "we run the risk" that people will "cynically approach such surveys the next time," she says. "This hurts the ability to obtain cooperation from the Internet community on subsequent studies, and undermines the credibility of objective data collection efforts."
Yep, and it doesn't do a whole hell of a lot for those that forked over the 995 clams, either. Now ... where did I put that Maalox anyway?