21 April 2008

Christopher Harris ~ Snap Judgements

In the context of a comment thread on the blog of right wing ranter Amy Alkon, photographer Christopher Harris opined that I am a "jerk" and a "thief." Mr. Harris has not, as far as I know, done more than visit this blog on a recognizance mission. He surely has never met me. Neither, for that matter, has the "gutsy" Ms. Alkon (her adjective). The context of Harris's intemperate comments was a disagreement over what constitutes "fair use" of copyrighted images and text. We got there because Ms. Alkon had reverted to one of the staple tactics of a good ideologue ~ change the subject and try to blame someone who questions you for some alleged, but truly irrelevant failing. Can you understand the phrase "red herring"? Enough, though, of the genealogy.

What is astounding to me is the self-righteousness, outrage and self-certainty Harris expresses. He is sure about the intricacies of the fair use exception. Maybe because he has no law degree his view is more perspicuous than, say, the folks at the Brennan Center (NYU Law) who on their Fair Use Network page admit that "intellectual property, or "IP," law" is "a mass of confusion for artists, scholars, journalists, bloggers, and everyone else who contributes to culture and political debate." It must be very, very re-assuring to Harris that he possesses so clear a view of such a contested, confusing arena.

Unfortunately for him, Harris's self-certainty has not translated well into the legal arena. In 2006 he lost a case against The San Jose Mercury News for purported copyright infringement.* The newspaper had used one of Harris's photos in a book review without securing his permission. Their defense? Fair Use, of course. Now I am sympathetic to Mr. Harris's concern for his livelihood. And I might actively admire his willingness to fund this case himself. (The PDN story to which I link says he received no funding from major photography groups. Is that because he sought none, or because they thought his suit crackpot? It turns out that Harris is a serial litigant, having previously sued another newspaper. My admiration is contingent on the answers to those questions.) All that said, virtually none of the factors that Harris must've thought held against The News apply to the way I use images and text here. I'd be happy to talk about that if Harris is interested.

What is my point? In his correspondence with Amy Alkon, Harris suggests (referring to me) that "he does not value the very thing he claims to care about." But since he has never so much as spoken to me, Harris has no idea what I care about, and so he steps right in it. (To bad his clarity of vision doesn't help him navigate his immediate surroundings. His shoes must be a mess.) What I value is public debate about culture and politics. And in partaking in that debate here I rely on the conception of fair use that Harris apparently fails to grasp. Harris is a good photographer, although I dare not reproduce any of his work here for fear of falling prey to his litigious impulse. I link to his web page above. He is, though, seemingly a pretty poor source of legal advice. And while I may be a jerk, it seems that I am not alone. The way Harris reaches for epithets first - before bothering to figure out what he is talking about - suggests that he has a propensity to rant that threatens the sort of debate I care about. I would just remind Harris that, as one who himself photographs some in color, he should consider that just maybe the world is not all black-and-white.
* By the way, Amy Alkon, erroneously reports the disposition of Harris's suit. He lost, Amy. That is characteristic of her terribly tenuous connection to the real world. She apparently cannot report even the most basic facts accurately. Given a 50-50 chance of being right Amy Alkon screws it up. That is frightening given her self-proclaimed status as "Advice Goddess."
P.S.: (Update later that day): I should have, but did not, make clear that I had never so much as heard of Christopher Harris prior to today when he sent his emails to Amy Alkon. At no time, for instance, have I posted or even mentioned any of his work here on the blog. So his diatribe is of the "principled" sort that only someone with absolutely nothing at stake here might offer. Ms. Alkon sought out Harris's expertise (such as it is) of her own accord and he replied in just the way she would want.

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Blogger Amy Alkon said...

The difference between you and me, Mr. Johnson, is evidenced in the comment I posted on my site (in response your complaint about my earlier comment in which I incorrectly said Harris won his case):

AMY ALKON: "It's an error by me, which I regret. I make mistakes from time to time and freely admit them.

He did lose the case. You're correct, and I'm wrong.

Now that I've given you an example of what it's like to be ethical and accountable, please address what in his e-mail I posted is incorrect.

Also, please feel free to address what points in my critique of Solnit's piece are wrong, and why. I doubt you can, which is probably why you have yet to post anything of substance criticizing my points.

I find it most disturbing that you're employed as a professor at a university; especially as a professor of poly sci. Unfortunately, I don't find it surprising.

21 April, 2008 12:51  
Blogger Amy Alkon said...

Here's a subsequent comment from Harris that I've posted on my site (with his permission, of course):

Information you may want to post regarding Mr.
Johnson is as follows:
I am not an attorney, never claimed to be one. I do
however teach law and ethics on an undergraduate and
graduate college level. My legal academic writing has
been published in two highly-acclaimed law journals.
More than most lawyers ever achieve.
And Mr. Johnson's background in law?
As to the issue of my losing the case against the
(San Jose) Mercury News; yes I did. But can you name
the reason, Mr. Johnson? Let me help you: I lost on
the basis of fair use for newsworthiness by a
newspaper. Mr. Johnson's visual thefts for his website
could not stand-up to the rigor of a trial, but let me
put it even more simply (in deference to his lack of
knowledge in the law): keep using photographs
illegally and you will be sued. Not by me. But rather
by Reuters and Associated Press and others. I can give
Mr. Johnson the phone numbers for both photo agencies
if he needs them. I'll bet he doesn't have the cajones
to contact anyone for permission!
That might add some clarity to Mr. Johnson's (not
recognized) plight. You do not have legal grounds to
Copyright statutes, and ethics, demand that you try
to obtain permission before you go the route of
claiming any such blanket exemptions.
Now lets talk ethics. What you are doing is
plaigarism...visual plaigarism. As an academic (?) you
should know you can't hide behind the theft of
another's work. Since we are what we are, I would
suspect that your academic work could suffer from the
same sense of ethical transgression. Who knows...or
even cares?

21 April, 2008 13:31  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Johnson,
Just some minor corrections in your "tribute" to me. First of all, as you mention in your post, you could call me and find out anything you want. But I doubt you will do that...just as you can't contact image makers for their permission for you to use their images. Poor boy, having to ask for all of those permissions.
Secondly, "serial litigant?" I have sued two newspapers. Lost to the Mercury News, won against the (New Orleans) Times-Picayune. I guess only a serial infringer like you would think that protecting my copyright would be "serial."
See, you really are a jerk.
So answer this for me. Why don't you have the guts (see I cleaned-up what I wanted to say) to call
AP or Reuters and ask them for free permission to publish their images. You won't because you know they will not give you permission.
So contact them and publish their response in your blog!
Bet you won't.
Chris Harris

21 April, 2008 13:54  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Amy, Thanks for the further irrelevancies from Harris. Here is my reply:

Dear Chris,

I am happy to compare my intellectual/academic accomplishments with yours any day. But if you have some real concern with my publications please let me know. Otherwise your charges of plagiarism are just more ignorant bullshit. Watch out that, as the self-appointed arbiter of ethical standards, you don't step in it again.

As for law journals - you know, I'm certain, that they are run by law students. That has led legal scholars like Richard Posner and others to question the worth of the entire enterprise. Yes, Chris, I actually teach courses and write on the law too. But I don't offer legal advice to others because I am not a lawyer! There is an interesting thought. Try it out.

Given what you say here your case with SJMN has nothing to do with what I do on my blog. So, your primary qualification in all this seems to be that you lost a law suit. From my perspective that means your opinion is worth everything we've paid for it. Just another guy off the street. Thanks
a lot.

21 April, 2008 14:03  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Amy, Nice to hear from you. And thanks for admitting that you are wrong.

(1) As for Harris’s email to you ~ there is nothing wrong in it. Applying the categories of right and wrong to it would presume that it was at all relevant to anything I do here. Harris was talking in total ignorance. You are quoting him in the same way. So it is not that his rant is wrong; it is completely irrelevant. Mr. Harris, while a good photographer, is, beyond that, just an aggrieved (and losing) plaintiff in a lawsuit. His word carries no weight on these matters generally. And he has no idea what I do here on the blog. So, what is wrong with the email from him from which you so liberally quote is that he felt justified in sending it in the first place.

(2) What is wrong with your initial post on Solnit? Other than the things I already have pointed out, nothing, I suppose. I am not going to regurgitate the entire comment thread. Here are the tags for my comments where I direct you to passages from Solnit’s that you purposefully neglect. You can start with these:

Posted by: JJ at April 14, 2008 6:44 PM
Posted by: JJ at April 14, 2008 7:12 PM

The problem has been that instead of reading you just run your mouth. You caricature Solnit and then, when called out for that, initiate a series of irrelevant criticisms of me for what I do here. As I have said at your place repeatedly - pathetic.

(3) I find it hard to make sense of your final ad hominem ~ How can you be dismayed at something that you find unsurprising? I am a professor, so you immediately are suspicious (sort of like me and advice columnists) but given that I seem to merely confirm your prejudices, you should not be surprised. Am I missing something?

More generally are you vaguely capable of making an argument that is not laced through and through with red herrings and ad hominem attacks and other argumentative idiocies? Or are you really as dim as you seem?

P.S.: I do not mean to be encouraging (really!) but should you decide to write back please note: "You can use some HTML tags, such as ...". I say that because, as you know, when I took advantage of such an invitation at your place you pitched a tantrum.

21 April, 2008 14:06  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Dear Chris (@ 13:54),

(1) Let me get this straight. You write a letter insulting me without ground or knowledge and I’m supposed to ring you up and say ... what, precisely? You’ve spent to much time with the darkroom chemicals my friend. Like your chum Amy you run your mouth first and then .... well, instead of (even then) asking questions or thinking, you just run it some more. You two deserve one another.

(2) As for your “dare ya! dare ya!’” choruss, you’ve really got to be kidding. This is not the middle school playground. See, Chris, as I read fair use doctrine (and here we simply disagree) it is a waste of my time to make any of the calls to AP etc. that you so cutely recommend. That is what the fair use doctrine is for. I don't have to call.

So, let me ask you ~ Do you squander your time to take up inane dares from random guys who initiate unsolicited email exchanges with you? I didn’t think so. And none of your stomping around suggests that I should listen to anything you say. Let’s imagine, hypothetically, that I did call AP and they said “no”. What would that show? It would show that me and AP differ over what constitutes fair use. Maybe they’d sue. I doubt it. That is because virtually everything I do directs attention (hence potential market) toward rather than away from the photographers I discuss. Think of it as free advertising. Even if I say critical things about someone's work remember the maxim: it doesn't matter what they say about you so long as they are talking about you.

Perhaps that is why photographers regularly write thanking me for calling attention to their work? Perhaps you’ve over looked that possibility in your incisive legal assessment of what I do here? If someone like you did sue, I think they’d lose. Like you. (Your failed case sets wonderful precedent!) But let’s be real. If anyone writes or calls and asks me not to use their images or text I’d just take the relevant stuff down (with an explanation to readers, of course). Life is too short Chris.

(3) Here from Merriam-Webster online is part of their definition of “serial” Please note the quotation marks: “5a: performing a series of similar acts over a period of time [a serial killer] b: occurring in or involving such a series [a serial murder]”.

Since serial seems to just mean ‘more than once,’ I guess twice qualifies. Is there a problem there? And since you have nothing but your own mis-guided opinion concerning infringement to go on, I guess I am not too worried about your assessment here.

(4) Finally, I do want to say that having called my academic or intellectual ethics into question in an email to Amy, you nicely step back from that bullshit in your direct correspondence with me. Thanks. But having tried to give you the benefit of the doubt, here’s back at you: “See, you really are a jerk.” Maybe we can leave it at that.


21 April, 2008 15:54  
Blogger trane said...


I am a frequent reader of this blog, and have only scant knowledge of law, so my question is that of the pedestrian:

What's your grievance here?

Jim Johnson reproduces some of your photographs at his blog, and shows some admiration for them.

The effect may be to alert other people to your work (which in itself should be desirable), increasing your reputation, and lead to a higher demand for your service, which will then be paid for.

As far as I understand, Jim gets no financial benefit from his blog.

21 April, 2008 16:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the pettiness of the photographer extremely distasteful. Just what exactly is the harm in Jim sharing images with his readers? He always provides the appropriate credits and links. The idea that he should pick up the phone anytime he wants to post a particular image he finds interesting is totally ludicrous. Get a life.

21 April, 2008 19:05  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to add to Trane's question here. How, Mr. Harris and Ms. Alkon, did you find this blog? Mr. Harris, are you googling your name to find where it appears on the internet? Are you roaming the internet looking for a fight with anyone who "publishes", is it post or publish on the internet, (and what is the difference), your work?

It is clear from your website that you have some talent for photography, however, it appears that your attitude towards others and the purpose of your profession are holding you back personally and professionally.

As you have challenged others on this forum, I now challenge you to respond. I will not, however, call you out if you do not choose to do so.

Thank You.

22 April, 2008 06:13  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Dawei & Trane, I added an update to this post clarifying the fact that I never have used any of Harris's images here. So it is a mystery what his business in all this. How can someone get so worked up about something that is none of his business?

That said, it might not be simple pettiness for a photographer to complain about the use of her work. But some understanding of what counts as "fair use" is essential to figuring out when such a complaint might be justified. Harris evidences no such understanding. Not does Ms. Alkon.

I've added a second post identifying the relevant factors and suggesting why each of the posts on my blog arguably would fall under the fair use exception. We'd have to look at different posts, of course. Harris and Alkon didn't do that either. They simply yelled and stomped feet and called names. Ad, as I mentioned in an earlier contribution to this thread, if someone complained about my use of their work her, I'd just remove it. Their loss.

Anon, We should not be too hard on Harris. His opinion was solicited by Amy Alkon. She was the one who searched me out because I questioned her in the comment thread. The title of her post was "Rebecca Solnit is a Sniveling Idiot." In any case, she tracked me down because she's not used to anything but sycophants commenting on her blog. And then (as I note in the initial post) she tried to change the subject to how I write posts here. The tactic? When you cannot defend your own position attack the integrity of the person whose challenged you. Inn any case, she then went and solicited Mr. Harris's expertise and directed him here.

Harris is indeed a pretty accomplished photo-journalaist. He is, however, nuts to take on a commission from Amy.

22 April, 2008 06:52  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Lest you readers think that Amy is ever so cordial and polite (as witnessed by her comment above, she ran home to post the following on her own blog. I quote knowing she may wail about suing me:

"Hilariously, I went over there this afternoon to see if Creators' office manager had gotten around to making him take down the Gary Larson cartoon he'd posted, and I saw that he'd written below a post about me:

"Given a 50-50 chance of being right Amy Alkon screws it up. That is frightening given her self-proclaimed status as 'Advice Goddess.'"

Hilarious, huh? No, I don't like to make errors, but it's not like I call myself "Dr. Amy Alkon."

Yes, self-proclaimed status as "The Advice Goddess." Oh, how FRIGHTENING!...that somebody who calls herself something so silly might err!

Shall we all quiver together?"

Posted by: Amy Alkon ... April 21, 2008 9:01 PM

Well, I am a Doctor. From a real live University. I don't make a big deal about it. You won't find me using the title anywhere on the blog or, for that matter, in most of my professional work. In fact the only person worried about it is Amy who is simply spewing more anti-intellectual resentment and outrage.

I never said "Advice Goddess" is a silly label. A bit defensive are we? I just pointed out that someone who can't get the simplest things right might not be a reliable source of advice. (Someone who credits the inimitable Chris Harris as an "expert" in the area of copyright law, as Amy does in another comment, raises even further concerns about any advice she might offer.)

Finally, you will notice that Ms. Amy is crowing that she's trying to reach Gary Larson to have him "make me" remove a of his cartoon I used in an earlier post. If Larson or his agents contact me I will surely take his work down. I would do the same, as a matter of courtesy, for anybody who complains.

Big Deal Amy. Like your buddy Chris, you've apparently never left the middle school play ground where "Make me!" passes for thought or an actual argument. Am I supposed to be quivering in fear at your pathetic adolescent behavior?

22 April, 2008 13:53  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I received this comment and then mistakenly hit the discard rather than the post command. I am leaving it anonymous as seems appropriate:

"I found myself here after reading the entire exchange about Solnit at the advice-lady's website.http://www.advicegoddess.com/archives/2008/04/rebecca-solnit.html I found myself here to say "Thank you" for raising the bar of the comments post that was reducing oppression to a matter of private, psychological dysfunction. While not all oppressions are the same, to follow Amy's thinking, one might think that African Americans draw attention to themselves by being out at night in parts of city that have rates of violence.

Again, thank you for going to bat for a person like myself who is just finding her voice in this place of internet-thinking that can so quickly devolve to hate speech, ad hominim, and ruthless opinion."

HW - come by any time.

22 April, 2008 23:11  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nightmare. I can't abide this kind of thing.

Kudos to you for battling it out, Jim. Many softer souls would just batten down the hatches and blot them out. There's a horror show going on my site at the moment and I'm closing it down at midnight, so I know I'm chicken.

I just hope it's all not getting to bleh to mention, and that you're okay.

Conference season must be upon us again soon. Please let me know the next time you're speaking anywhere local-ish. Durham would be good! :)

07 May, 2008 17:51  

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