Microsoft sued for 'racist' application

Microsoft says it fixed the problem -- long before the litigation.

Updated 3:08 PM PT

A lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses Microsoft Corp. of including a "racially charged" message in its Publisher 98 software linking an image of black people to the word "monkey."

The suit -- charging that when users type the word "monkey" into the software's clip-art search engine, they see images including a photo of a black couple -- was filed in San Diego federal court by John Elijah. Elijah, a black construction worker, said he was humiliated when he was shown the image by a co-worker.

"The major purpose for this lawsuit is to make sure that Microsoft takes some effort to engage in quality control," said Harvey Levine, Elijah's lawyer. "I think their attitude right now is that, because they're a computer company, ... they're beyond quality control."

The suit demands $75,000 in damages.

Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) said it discovered the situation in early May, and at that time took steps to inform customers about it and to distribute a patch that eliminates the issue. Microsoft said it has also altered Publisher 2000 so that the link will not show up in the new version.

"We informed our customers in early May of this unfortunate and isolated situation in the clip-art gallery," said Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn. "We discovered it through our own testing process earlier in the year, and took a number of ... steps to eliminate the issue. All this was done prior to the litigation."

Keyword search results
The image of a black couple posing near a set of monkey bars in a park is one of several images of the same couple in various park activities. Images in the gallery are identified by keywords to allow users to search for them; the keywords for the image in question include "man," "woman," "person" and "equipment" as well as "monkey bars," Microsoft said.

When a user searched for "monkey" in Publisher 98, the search returned images of primates as well as the image of the black couple with the monkey bars.

Microsoft noted that the same image of the couple with the monkey bars would have appeared if users searched for the word "bar."

"Occasionally, you'll find clips that don't appear to be related to what you searched for," Sohn admitted. "If you search for 'sun,' you'll get pictures of the sun, stylized drawings of the sun, but also sun flowers and even bears playing in the sun."

Microsoft recently released what it calls a comprehensive encyclopedia of black history and culture, Microsoft Encarta Africana, compiled with the assistance of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The CD-ROM is a compilation of articles, audio and video sources, and stories from African-American culture.

Submarine humor
The lawsuit raises another example of how tricky it can be for companies to manage content in the hyperlinked information age.

Although the situation with Publisher appears to be an unfortunate coincidence, software sometimes includes insider "jokes" deliberately inserted by programmers. Such submarine jokes often don't emerge until programs are released to the public.

Some inserts are harmless, but others are potentially as offensive as the "monkey" pictures -- even if they are unintentional. For instance, when users type the name of the popular D.C. punk rock band "Fugazi" into certain Microsoft Word programs, the spell checker offers two options to correct the spelling: "fugal" or "fags."

ZDTV CyberCrime's Alex Wellen contributed to this report.