The author of the "fake Steve Jobs" blog has become a minor celebrity, but can anybody set up a spoof blog and get away with it?
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
Google "Gordon Brown blog" and you get to a year-old page that purports to be the innermost political musings of the then-chancellor.
Fair enough you think, and read on. The references to "a safer, more socially just Britain" and "reinvigorating our mandate" are pure Brown, so perhaps this is an old but genuine blog.
In reality, Gordon Brown does not admire Chairman Mao
It's only when you get to proposals for a statue "to acknowledge the tough choices Mao Zedong made in public and fiscal reforms" and a suggestion for an offence of "glorification of the middle class" that you realise the joke.
It follows a long tradition of printed spoof and parody, taking targets like politicians and the other great and good of the day and trying to recreate their musings to satirical effect. Private Eye's Secret Diary of John Major and St Albion Parish News are classic examples.
This week the Secret Diary of Steve Jobs has been in the news after the blog's author was revealed to be Forbes.com technology writer Daniel Lyons. His blog will now be sponsored by his employer.
In the diary, the Apple boss suggests iPhone production is being scaled back because "every fad-crazy idiot in America is getting one". If you don't realise it's not really Steve Jobs you have to believe he's a pupil of the Gerald Ratner model of publicity.
Fame can beckon for the spoof blogger, but there are many pitfalls to beware.
If parody is the goal, then humour must result. That humour often results from acute observation, coming up with the phrases that a real celebrity might use.
Craig Brown, who writes spoofs and parodies for Private Eye among others, has been doing it in print form since boarding school.
"The mistake most people make is they try too hard. If you are interested in language you just have to write down key phrases and you can rely 80% on just getting the language right.
"It's like juggling, you can either do it or you can't do it. I think most people can't do it. I never sense great competition out there."
PICK YOUR TARGETS AND STUDY
Brown has created long-running characters, but for Private Eye tends to do a different person each issue, occasionally returning to his favourites.
It is possible to do "anyone apart from the very, very boring or people without a style", he says, noting that he once did former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith.
In reality, Steve Jobs would not call Linux users "freetards"
The character and public utterances of the target must then be carefully studied before they can be parodied.
"I was doing Germaine Greer for next week's Private Eye. I've been reading old Germaine Greer [stuff], there are five or six key areas of her character. I put her on a sunny beach, I have her knocking down children's sand castles.
"Each individual sentence could have been said by her, but taken as a whole it would be too ridiculous. Often they are just lifted from stuff they have written."
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
A select politically savvy audience will appreciate one type of spoof, a web-literate, tech savvy audience another. And to be funny, the audience must quickly realise that the spoof is, well, a spoof.
"I've done fictitious characters like Wallace Arnold [for the Independent on Sunday]. I did the left-wing equivalent Bel Littlejohn [for the Guardian]. From the letters I got, well over half thought they were real," Brown says.
"I didn't want them to think they were real. If you thought Dame Edna Everage was a real Australian woman, you would find it creepy rather than funny."
DON'T GET SUED OVER COPYRIGHT
If in your parody you are nicking real sentences from your famous target, then be aware. You may be breaching their copyright, particularly within British law.
"In general terms, there is no defence of parody as such," says Matthew Harris, head of intellectual property and IT law at Norton Rose.
In the US, there are extensive "fair use" provisions for copyrighted material, but parodists are still pursued through the courts.
DON'T GET SUED FOR 'PASSING OFF'
But the danger of breaching someone's copyright pales in comparison with other legal dangers.
False attribution of authorship is major grounds for suing, Harris says.
"If you do something which effectively represents that this is the work of party A when it's not their work, if you set up a spoof blog under their name, then you can be sued under section 84 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988."
But surely no-one could read a spoof blog and get annoyed enough to sue?
In reality, Alastair Campbell would wait before revealing juicy details
Colourful Conservative MP Alan Clark did, and won, in an action against the Evening Standard for its "Alan Clark's Secret Political Diary", written by Peter Bradshaw. Despite the outrageous nature of the antics in the fictional diary, Clark had more than 20 witnesses who claimed they thought it was really by him.
Of course, Clark had written his own diaries, full of antics of a semi-outrageous nature, and was able to argue that future publishing could be prejudiced.
Disclaimers, although not offering fireproof status, are advisable. And one might choose to lampoon someone without going as far as naming them.
The Secret Blog of a TV Controller, which mocks the Byzantine wrangling and pretensions of the media, has been reported as being a spoof of BBC Three controller Danny Cohen. But it doesn't appear to mention him by name.
And best of all is a situation where you can write something wickedly satirical and not earn the complete ire of the target. Jobs himself is said to find the fake Steve Jobs blog amusing, which is the best antidote against legal action.
Brown, who has never been sued, says many of his subjects, including Marianne Faithfull and Clive James, have enjoyed being parodied, while he has heard suggestions that some, such as Cecil Parkinson and Melvyn Bragg, were less keen.
DON'T GET SACKED
Bear this in mind. No anonymous blog is really anonymous if you're using your own computer. Everyone runs the risk of being identified. An ISP can identify someone and set the ball rolling.
The writer of La Petite Anglaise, an English secretary working in France, was allegedly dismissed for her blog, which gave anecdotes of life in Paris, but did not name herself or her firm, although the blog did feature a photo of the author.
A spoof blog author also runs the risks of dismissal, says Jane Moorman, head of employment law at Howard Kennedy.
"If they are writing blogs while they are at work, they are wasting time from the employers perspective. If it brings the company into disrepute you are going to find yourself in disciplinary action."
Many companies have internet policies which proscribe activities in work time and also cover activities out of work time that touch on the business.
And it goes without saying, don't spoof blog your boss.
Below is a selection of your comments.
In Petite Anglaise's example, she was sacked, but unfairly. She sued her former employers, won, and got a hefty sum as compensation.
Amelie, Manchester, UK
So if I issue an obviously fake statement, purporting to be from the Prime Minister, ordering everyone to jump in the Thames, am I to be sued because some person might be stupid enough to believe it and obey? Surely they are victims of their own stupidity more than they would be of my prank? I find it extremely silly that the copyright law fails to allow for those too dumb to spot parody. There really ought to be greater allowances within the law for fair use and parody, particularly in the UK where we have such a great tradition of satire.
Rob, London UK
The spoof American Manchester United fan , who set up a site after the Glasers took over was one of the funniest things I have seen . Manchester Bucaneers indeed.....I think it finished because the author took it to a national paper.
Firestorm, Essex England
I did, for a brief time, derive great amusement with my friends by posting angst-ridden teen-esque poetry on internet message boards (I'm 20 now, but thankfully escaped teenage angst).
I had some very heartfelt responses about how comforting it was to know that someone else understood and felt the same etc, which made me feel a bit guilty.
But it really was funny.
What is a blog?
Albert Einstein, Los Angeles USA