July 2, 1997 2:05 PM PDT

King of spam meets its maker

Sanford Wallace is laughing today.

The man is in his element, phoning reporters from his cellular phone about that cease-and-desist letter sent to him by Hormel Foods Corporation ordering him to stop using a certain word to promote his business, which is bombarding the Net with unsolicited junk email.

You know the word: "spam."

Wallace isn't about to stop using it. It's even less likely he'll stop using it now, since his use of the word "spam" has put him directly in the spotlight, where he is happiest. In fact, he couldn't have paid enough for this publicity.

If he weren't in a legal dispute with Hormel, he'd probably send them a thank-you email note--unsolicited of course. Instead, he sent them a letter through his attorney, telling the company in polite legal terms to basically take a flying leap.

The letter writing began on June 26 when Hormel sent Wallace a very official letter--via overnight delivery--ordering him to stop using the name "Spam." Specifically, the Hormel attorneys objected to Wallace using cans of Spam lunch meat in conjunction with media photo shoots. (Wallace says that press photographers brought the Spam cans, and that Hormel should be going after the publications.)

Hormel also objected to Wallace's registration of the domain name "spamford.com" and "spamford.net." Originally, Netizens slapped that name on Wallace in a derogatory fashion. He was supposed to feel insulted by it. Instead, he took the name and made it his own.

Maybe that's what makes Wallace particularly irritating: Nothing--not name calling, legal accusations, lost court battles, angry calls, hacks, or negative publicity--seems to get to him.

In fact, not only does he take it all in stride, but he finds a way to turn it around for his own benefit. Even after the legal losses and charges that say he's constantly breaking rules, Wallace keeps saying no publicity is bad publicity. (Name any major media publication or outlet and you'll probably find at least one story on spam that names Wallace.)

In the news business, spam is what might be called a sexy story, although it's difficult to equate processed pig parts or a man who tries to make lots of money sending out junk email with anything sexual. It's just a way to say the story has some compelling elements. Even Hormel has admitted that simply saying the word Spam can draw laughs. Not that the company thinks Spam is funny; it's that others do.

Maybe it's funny because the concept of meat packed in a square can touches the ironic core of Americana. Perhaps it's because Monty Python made so much fun of it that it became a household word. Ralph Jacobs, Wallace's attorney, actually accused Hormel of having "no sense of humor" about the Monty Python sketch "which many identify as the original source of the meaning of the term 'spam' in cyberspace," he wrote in a letter to the company.

"Spam, Spam, Spam," went the sketch. Unrelenting Spam--it was a natural fit for the practice of endless, unasked-for email. This was how the label was born, or at least that's how the story goes.

But Hormel and its attorneys, who did not return calls by press time, aren't laughing about "spam" being used as the term for unsolicited junk email. There may be a good reason for that. Say "spam" in certain newsgroups and you're likelier to elicit more flames than laughs.

Spam, as used on the Net, angers most everyone, from casual users to the self-appointed Net cops who have dedicated their lives to ridding the world of unsolicited mail, and particularly of Wallace. While Wallace claims that a lot of people actually like spam, for many--at least the vocal ones--the practice of spamming generates anger, hatred, rage, and even hacker attacks.

So it's pretty obvious that most people don't think nice, happy thoughts when they think of junk email. Imagine being a company trying to get people to purchase a food product and make sandwiches with it. Then imagine those same people logging onto the Net and seeing all the nasty talk about spam and "Spamford" Wallace. "Wholesome" does not describe what would immediately come to mind.

Wallace basically said, in nicer words, that the situation is Hormel's tough luck. Spam, he and his lawyer reiterate, has become a common word in the lexicon of the Net and that it rarely refers to anything edible.

"It's too late to change 25 million people's vocabulary," Wallace argues. "We'd rather [Hormel] acknowledge the fact that we have the right to use 'spam.'" Naturally.

In keeping with the Wallace philosophy, he laughs that he really can't understand Hormel's objection. "We think we're promoting them more than anything. They're getting free promotion out of all this."

 

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