NEW YORK (CNNfn) - A new lawsuit accuses Microsoft Corp. of including a racially insensitive graphic in its popular publishing software that suggests a connection between black people and monkeys.
John Elijah filed the complaint Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Diego, claiming Microsoft's Publisher 98 program contains "an inherently racist element" in its image gallery.
When users type the word "monkey" to obtain a graphic, the program displays an African-American couple sitting on playground equipment, alongside four other images that show various types of monkeys. The suit claims that while the term "monkey bars" is supposed to refer to the playground equipment on which the couple is sitting, the equipment shown in the image "is plainly not 'monkey bars.' "
Elijah is suing Microsoft (MSFT) for $75,000 in damages for extreme humiliation, embarrassment and emotional distress. According to the filing, Elijah, a field supervisor at Janus Corp., was subjected repeatedly to racist comments and behavior after being exposed to the image in the presence of several co-workers, all of whom are white. Elijah is black.
The suit also claims Microsoft was long aware of the problem but failed to modify the software or alert the public.
Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn, however, said the company took swift action after becoming aware of the problem earlier this year.
"We posted a letter to customers on the Microsoft Office site," he said. "In early May, we posted a letter on Microsoft.com, we developed a software tool for a free download [to correct the problem], we also sent e-mails to more than a million registered [Publisher 98] users informing them of the situation. The record will show we acted decisively."
Sohn said the company is reviewing its legal options.
This isn't the first time Microsoft has been accused of including offensive messages in its software. Last October, reports surfaced about a distasteful match in the Word 97 thesaurus tool. When highlighting the sentence "I'd like all black people to die" and applying the thesaurus tool, it produced the phrase, "I'll drink to that."
In 1992, Microsoft's Windows 3.1 operating system included an allegedly anti-Semitic message in its font selector. When users typed the letters NYC (for New York City), Windows' Zapf Dingbat font produced the images -- in order -- of a skull and crossbones, a Star of David and a thumbs up.
Microsoft is working currently to erase the public relations blemish from its ongoing antitrust suit with the government. Elijah's suit marks yet another blow to the company's image.
Sohn said there is no heightened concern within Microsoft about its reputation, but he noted that the company is beginning to review the process of including content in Publisher's image gallery.
Sohn said the company has been "consulting with several members of the African-American community to get their advice," including William Gray, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund , and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Gates, along with Harvard professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, led the editorial team for Microsoft's Encarta Africana multimedia encyclopedia.
"This company doesn't put up with this kind of stuff -- intentionally or otherwise," Sohn said. "There is nothing sinister or intentional going on here."