Monday, October 31, 2016

Esquivalience: Fighting Copyright Infringement with Language

If you've ever needed to know the meaning of a word, you probably looked in a dictionary. More often than not, it probably didn't matter which dictionary you looked in, they're all the same right?

In most ways, all dictionaries are very similar. They do have the very same objective, after all. They have to list the most common words in a given language and provide said words with a definition. With this very specific goal, it's not surprising that the end result can be very similar.

Similar but not the same. Dictionaries being similar is explainable. If they're the same, somebody's probably copied your dictionary. It's very difficult to go page-by-page through the dictionary trying to prove your dictionary has been copied. Verifying that every page and every word is the same is a tricky and lengthy process.

You'd have to be pretty eagle-eyed to catch a fake word in
the dictionary.
So how do you stop people copying you? You plant a trap for the counterfeiters. Since nobody really reads the dictionary in order to verify all the words are genuinely used, you can place a false entry without arousing too much suspicion. Just like hiding a needle in a haystack.

The New Oxford American Dictionary featured one such trap. Within the dictionary they placed the word esquivalience. The word's definition was "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities". Since the word doesn't exist, if it appears in another dictionary, they could be sure that people were copying their dictionary and could take the appropriate legal action.

The website dictionary.com fell into their trap. Additionally, they didn't even cite the correct dictionary they'd copied it from. They said it was from Webster's. What happens if we start using esquivalience? I guess they'll just have to hide another fake word in the dictionary.