Author’s Brief Note
What Happened to MathWorld
It is no secret that one consequence of the explosion in the popularity of the internet and related electronic technologies is that many battles will be fought over how information is created, stored, and accessed. It is equally clear that we all have a stake in how these battles are decided.
Below is an account of one such battle–the lawsuit served on me and Wolfram Research in the spring of 2000 by CRC Press LLC, a publisher that generations of scientists used to know as the Chemical Rubber Company. This lawsuit was instigated by CRC Press after I had contracted with them to print and distribute a « snapshot » of my math website in book form. My goal in recounting how that contract went awry is to give others an opportunity to learn less painfully what I have learned–especially about the deep cultural divide that appears to be opening up between most, but I hope not all, book publishers and their potential customers and authors. In particular, many publishers seem unable to understand a new generation for whom dynamic websites are rapidly becoming a primary medium–sometimes coequal with books, sometimes preferred over books–for gathering, extending, and sharing knowledge.
In this account, you will find links that will take you to extensive documents containing all you could possibly want to know (and probably more) about the lawsuit that took this website off the internet for more than a year. What happened to MathWorld will happen again elsewhere. But I believe and hope that the lessons learned from my experience can reduce the frequency of such events in the future.
The following detailed summaries are extracted in part from an even more detailed exposition of the history of my website contained in my affidavit in response to CRC’s motion for an injunction against MathWorld.
How MathWorld Came to Be
I began collecting the material now found in MathWorld when I was in high school and continued the project as a college student in the late 1980s. As I collected the material, I stored my notes on my state-of-the-art Mac Plus personal computer and started sharing my collections of math and science facts with friends. « Eric’s Treasure Trove of Mathematics, » the predecessor site to MathWorld, first went online in 1995 when I was a graduate student in planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.
As the site became more widely known and used, dozens of contributors offered new entries. Hundreds of others from around the world offered technical advice, criticism, and kind messages. The website was in a constant state of evolution. It was a hugely rewarding experience. The growing volume of comments and submissions from the diverse community of users made clear that what had started as a labor of love for me was becoming a major math and science resource for thousands, just as I had hoped.
The Book: A « Snapshot » of the Evolving Web Site
As the website grew, I came to believe that a snapshot of its contents in printed form could be useful. I myself do not always have a computer at my fingertips. A book would also make the material accessible to precollege educators and people less comfortable with (or without access to) the internet. (For some of you it may require some imagination to conjure up the dark ages of 1995, when web browsers were in their infancy and email was hardly the mass phenomenon it has since become.)
Although new material was being added daily, I felt that the Treasure Trove had become comprehensive and polished enough, due in large part to helpful suggestions from critical readers, that a snapshot of it would constitute a useful reference book. So, in February 1996, I began seeking a publisher to print and market such a snapshot. I presented a nearly complete paper manuscript to several publishers of scientific and technical books, including CRC Press.
Tales of warm friendships between famous authors and their longtime editors are legendary. I imagined that publishers must have a natural interest in retaining the good will of their authors, especially authors of works likely to be revised and reissued in new editions. When CRC agreed to publish the book, I therefore gave limited scrutiny to the boilerplate publishing agreement they provided–especially since my editor, Bob Stern, characterized the contract as « very straight forward [sic] and easily understood. » He assured me that its language and terms were standard in the publishing business. So I signed it.
Lesson #1 (Where have you heard this before?): Never sign a contract until you feel that you understand and agree with, or at least accept, every clause in it. If you are not sure of the meaning or implications of any phrase or provision, find a lawyer experienced in your kind of project and take the lawyer’s advice! (This lesson should be read repeatedly and committed to memory.) Also consult with authors’ organizations, and make use of helpful online resources such as Wilfred Hodges’s mathematical copyright web page, a public page devoted to copyright issues in mathematical publications.
CRC’s agreement defined the contracted « Work » as « approximately 1400 camera-ready manuscript pages and including approximately 1200 camera-ready illustrations to yield a completed work of approximately 1408 printed pages. » I understood this to mean that I was assigning to CRC the right to publish the typeset camera-ready text I had offered.
The Web Site and Its Relationship to Book Sales
In late October or early November 1998, as the book adaptation neared final production, I received a phone call from Mr. Stern. Throughout this prepublication period, my website had been receiving a great deal of attention. On the website, I had posted an announcement of the imminent appearance of the CRC book, and that announcement appeared to be generating a significant number of prerelease sales for the book. I thought things were going very well.
But now Mr. Stern was on the phone asking me to remove portions of the website content in order to create greater incentives for online users to purchase the book.
I had always assumed that there would be, at most, a modest overlap between the set of people who were users of the website and the set of people who would want to own a printed reference book created by formatting a snapshot of the website contents. It had been gratifying to discover that people in that intersection seemed enthusiastic about buying the book.
So I told Mr. Stern that I felt the website was, on balance, creating sales for the book and not suppressing them. I was very reluctant to restrict free access to any contents of the website.
However, in November 1998, against my better judgment, I began to comply with Mr. Stern’s request. At first I did this by randomly choosing a set of letters of the alphabet each day and blocking all entries starting with those letters. That way, some inconvenience was introduced into use of the website, but no material remained blocked for long.
From the start this struck me as a poor device for dealing with irresponsible internet users who might attempt to bulk-download large portions of online material. Taking arbitrary entries off line was inconveniencing all users who happened to need the blocked material. And, happily, bulk-downloading was an uncommon pattern of use according to my analysis of website traffic.
If the problem was the user who wants to own a snapshot of the website but, to avoid purchasing the CRC book, downloads major portions of the website’s content, then why not inconvenience only those exhibiting such patterns of use? So I began to improve my monitoring and access system. By mid-1999 I felt that the software I had written was able to detect and prevent attempts to download large bodies of material. So I removed the letter-based access restrictions altogether.
I was now morally certain that no online user could, in effect, get around CRC’s rights to be sole provider of comprehensive snapshots of the website. (In addition to the printed book, CRC had agreed to market a CD-ROM version–a snapshot with its own advantages and disadvantages compared to a book. I had prepared the CD-ROM; CRC duplicated it and promised to promote it.)
Eric Comes to Wolfram Research
In the meantime, a representative of Wolfram Research had invited me to visit its Champaign headquarters and speak about my mathematical website. I traveled to Champaign in February 1999, presented my work, and shortly thereafter was delighted to be offered a position with Wolfram Research.
I had for some time admired Wolfram Research’s support of long-term efforts to collect and disseminate mathematical knowledge on the internet through a collection of information-rich websites. And I was enthusiastic about the possibility of working for what I knew to be the world’s premier technical software company.
As my postdoctoral research at the University of Virginia neared completion, I purchased the « www.treasure-troves.com » domain name and moved my web pages from the university address at which it had resided to a commercial internet-hosting site. Throughout this period the math Treasure Trove was accessible to the public and free of charge.
I began work at Wolfram Research on June 1, 1999.
Stephen Wolfram and others suggested that the website ought to give its users the ability to locate information based on a custom-tailored subject classification. A number of Wolfram Research staff joined me in developing an intuitive and powerful new graphical user interface that greatly enhanced the usefulness of the burgeoning content of the math website.
In December 1999 Wolfram Research and I unveiled the enhanced website, now renamed MathWorld and located at mathworld.wolfram.com.
CRC Fails to Promote the Book
When the book was first released, CRC promoted it with what I thought was some vigor. However, as the months passed, I grew increasingly disappointed with their efforts. Less than a year after its release, the book ceased appearing in CRC mailings that I received, including special ones for its « Most Popular Math Titles. »
I was also greatly disappointed that CRC had raised the price of the book twice within its first year, from the original $65 to $79.95, and then to $99.95. This seemed to undermine our original strategy of keeping the price low enough for students to afford.
And it appeared to me that CRC had done little to get the book into bookstores. In fact, to date I have seen the book carried in only a single bookstore: the campus bookstore of my highly atypical alma mater, the California Institute of Technology.
Accordingly, on February 15, 2000, I sent a note to Mr. Stern:
I’ve recently noticed a few signs which seem to indicate CRC is not doing an optimal job of publicizing the CRC Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics. I was hoping you could reassure me: (1) I just got the CRC « Best of Math » flier. To my surprise, my encyclopedia is nowhere to be found. (2) Amazon.com has been listing the book/CD-ROM combo as out of print and back-ordered for about 4 months now…. Would it be possible to have someone contact Amazon.com and find out why they think the combo is on back-order? (3) I never heard back from you about the color direct-mail flier which was supposed to go out promoting the [CD-ROM–erroneously written as « book » in the original] (and on which I sent you comments last summer). Do you know if it ever went out, or did the flier just get dropped?
Later that day, I received a phone call from Mr. Stern. He told me that (1) because the encyclopedia had been out for two years now (actually, it had been out for less than 15 months), it was not considered a very high priority and hence may have been « overlooked » when creating the brochure; (2) CRC had decided to discontinue the CD/book bundle, though he could offer no reason for this decision; and (3) promotional fliers for the CD-ROM and bundle editions had never seen the light of day.
CRC Sues Eric and Wolfram Research
At the end of this conversation, Mr. Stern changed the topic. He told me that he had heard that my website was now located at a Wolfram Research web address.
I told him that this was indeed true.
Mr. Stern said that something would have to be done about that.
I replied that I did not understand why the shift from the old website to the MathWorld site should be a matter of any concern. Mr. Stern simply repeated that it was and that he would have to inform his superiors at CRC. I did not know what to make of this, so I asked him to contact an attorney at Wolfram Research, who I believed would be able to clear up any concerns.
On March 8, 2000, I was greatly surprised when, after returning from lunch, I was informed that a sheriff’s deputy was waiting for me in the Wolfram Research lobby.
I was even more dismayed when he served me with a document naming me and my employer as defendants in a Federal copyright-violation lawsuit.
This was my first and only communication from CRC since my conversation three weeks earlier with Mr. Stern. For the interested reader, a copy of the lawsuit filed by CRC is available. A complete list of legal documents, many of which make interesting reading and give a good feel for the attitude of CRC Press, and a set of FAQs about the case are also available.
How the Tail Came to Wag the Dog
In its lawsuit, CRC claimed that the existence of the MathWorld website « competes with and interferes and impairs with [sic] sales of the Concise Encyclopedia. »
They sought monetary damages from Wolfram Research. From me, they sought « not less than the advance and all royalties earned by Weisstein »–everything, in short, that they had ever paid me!
Apparently impervious to irony, CRC at the same time acknowledged in its own court filing that the book was the company’s best-selling mathematics title! (This, one month after Mr. Stern had « explained » to me that my book was a back-list item that I should not be surprised to see dropped from its promotional materials.)
Arguments that the website was hurting sales of the book, in CRC’s subsequent motion for preliminary injunction to force us to shut down the website, were completely contrary to the facts as I knew them and as I had tried repeatedly to explain to Mr. Stern.
CRC claimed that « anyone can download MathWorld » and that MathWorld « supplants » or poses « a formidable threat » to the book. As explained above, I had taken steps to prevent large downloads; I knew from monitoring traffic at the website that large downloads were in fact not happening.
And CRC also claimed, with a straight face, in a reply memorandum that « the public will suffer no injury from a preliminary injunction because the Encyclopedia will continue to be available without interruption, from CRC Press. »
This argument, in particular, confirmed my worst fears that CRC’s representatives had never understood the nature of my website. They were blind to the interests of the thousands of you in our online community who had helped expand and improve it. They seemed completely oblivious of the fact that without you there might not have been a book worth publishing.
Wolfram Research and I were confident that CRC’s factual assertions about the website had no merit. But the law takes copyright very seriously. Language in my contract with CRC (that I had never construed in the way that CRC now presented it) apparently persuaded the Court on October 23, 2000, to grant CRC’s injunction, perhaps to create a strong incentive for Wolfram Research and me to negotiate a settlement with CRC. (It was clear to all parties that the original contract had flaws; in such cases, the best approach is often for the disputants to reach an out-of-court settlement by writing a new, clarified contract. In effect, that is what has, at long last, happened.)
I simply could not believe what was happening. The interests of thousands of enthusiastic users of the website were about to be sacrificed to the misperceived commercial interests of the company that I had brought in to provide a printed version to the comparatively few users who might want a book. What I had conceived as a minor side activity was threatening to destroy the core activity on which I had been working for more than a decade!
Some Comments about CRC Press LLC
As the shock wore off, Wolfram Research’s and my first instincts were to reason with CRC. We were certain, based on feedback from readers of the website, that their assertions about it were unfounded, that it was in fact generating book sales for them and not suppressing sales.
But when we attempted to present these facts, we found that no one from CRC press was even listening. During the course of these discussions, the heads of the book publishing and the electronic publishing divisions both left the company. We could not get anyone to listen to arguments actually focusing on the marketing of books. CRC’s responses were overwhelmingly legal and contractual. When facts entered at all, they were simply repeated assertions that we were certain would not stand up to reasonable scrutiny.
We wanted very much to negotiate a settlement that would allow us to bring the website back. We proposed what we thought were attractive arrangements that would benefit both companies. Our proposals were ignored.
For months, I could not imagine why CRC was behaving as it was. Why would a technical publisher not listen to one of its best-selling authors and to his employer, the world leader in mathematical computation? Why treat us, instead, in a way almost guaranteed to alienate us? It seemed insane!
I have had to conclude, to my sorrow, that CRC–perhaps like many other publishers in our era of wild corporate acquisitions and conglomerations–is no longer managed by people who understand and love books, authors, and readers.
The parent company of CRC, Information Holdings Inc., appears unashamed to treat information as a commodity to be exploited for short-term, bottom-line cash with no concern for long-term, strategic planning. The goal of the CRC representatives seemed to be monomaniacal: to squeeze from Wolfram Research and from me as much instant and short-term cash as possible, using the lawsuit as a lever.
How self-defeating in an era of rapid technological change! Apparently uninterested in looking forward and building good future business strategies, here are publishers focusing instead on how to squeeze greater quantities of immediate cash from old « properties. »
I have come to realize how unusual it is to be working for a company that is run by people who still enjoy the core activities for which the company was founded. Very early in the lawsuit, a Wolfram Research response to the lawsuit mentioned that Wolfram Research has chosen to remain privately held in order to be free from the obligation to outside stockholders, who appear so often to focus corporations inordinately on short-term financial results. Wolfram Research’s principals believe that they can take the long and broad view of the corporation’s mission, as they could not if they had to satisfy stock analysts and uninvolved stockholders.
The behavior of CRC’s representatives this last year has been, for me, convincing evidence of the wisdom of Wolfram Research’s strategy. The people at my company believe in what they do, make money doing it, and have fun along the way. I didn’t see much fun among the CRC people we dealt with.
Settling the Case
We eventually concluded that there was no real business discussion possible. CRC was simply incapable of listening to or evaluating an actual business proposal. So we weighed the costs of continued litigation against the costs of giving CRC some of the cash for which it appeared so hungry. The cash approach won.
In addition to its « instant win, » CRC will be paid annually for books it doesn’t sell, according to a formula that both sides have accepted–although we continue to believe that any past or future failure to achieve projected sales is far more plausibly attributed to CRC’s abysmal marketing efforts than to any abuse of the website by people who want to have and hold snapshots of its contents. But in this life we do what we have to do–and what we are willing to do.
After a draining personal ordeal lasting more than a year while the site was unavailable to readers MathWorld is now back. We’ve even taken the opportunity to add a new streamlined graphical design, and have also added a new feature in which important headline mathematical news will be announced and described. I hope this feature will be useful to readers of the website as a means for keeping tabs on what is happening in the mathematical sciences. Please feel free to contribute news items to firstname.lastname@example.org so I can pass the word along to others!
Wolfram Research and I have been and remain steadfastly committed to supporting the development of MathWorld. Wolfram Research has committed considerable resources to defend MathWorld against the threat of being permanently removed from the internet–an outcome CRC Press has repeatedly told us would suit it just fine. I am personally grateful for the support of Wolfram Research and for the fact that MathWorld will not be relegated to an electronic trash heap.
Finally, I would like to extend my sincerest thanks for your patience and support over this past year. I invite your continued partnership in my efforts to expand and improve MathWorld as well as to support other efforts to gather and present educational information free of charge over the internet. Let’s continue together to spread the wonder and beauty that is mathematics!
Eric W. Weisstein
Wolfram Research, Inc.
November 6, 2001
Note added by Laurette Tuckerman:
CRC Press is now part of Taylor and Francis.
As a scientist or mathematician, do you really want to be a part of this?