Blogger Gets the Last Laugh

Website mocking photographs used by Washington University in St. Louis is once again active.
September 14, 2011

Alex Christensen is getting the last laugh after a blog he created poking fun at his alma mater was shut down, and has now been restored.

It started simply enough. After Washington University in St. Louis unveiled its website redesign in December, Christensen, a senior at the time, decided to poke a little fun at his university. He started the blog “Wash U Photo Captions” in December, posting what he calls the “ridiculous” promotional photographs from the university’s new website and adding his own snarky captions.

“They were obviously posed or cheesy or didn’t quite give the same impression of the campus that I had being there for four years,” he said. “So I started the blog to poke fun at both the photos themselves and the kind of like the public image that Wash U. is putting out there.”

But after a few months of operation and almost a thousand hits per day, the blog’s host, Tumblr, e-mailed him in March saying his account had been suspended because the content of his site violated the company’s user agreement by featuring copyrighted photos.

Christensen, who has since graduated and is now a business analyst in Minnesota, cried foul shortly after he received word, citing the Fair Use doctrine, which allows copyrighted material to be repurposed for a variety of reasons, including satire and parody. With the help of a volunteer law group in St. Louis whose members petitioned Tumblr, the host for the blog, the site is back for the new academic year.

“It’s an adaptable format to both comment on what’s going at Wash U. and what’s going on in a larger world through the lens of a Wash U. student,” Christensen said. “There’s that more serious role for it to play. But it’s also just meant to be fun and to giggle at every once in a while.”

Christensen’s inaugural post after the legal dispute was resolved depicted a photograph of a professor and student smiling and talking in a classroom. The caption: “Washington University’s beautiful campus looks like it could easily be part of Cambridge or Hogwarts, but some visitors only realize they’re in the US when they see the big, white molars of the smiling students and faculty. Just look at those teeth!”

The university's vice chancellor of public affairs, Fredric Volkmann, wrote in an e-mail that he was not directly involved with the controversy surrounding the site, but did say it “contains a registered, protected trademark (Wash U), which the University vigorously protects from unauthorized use in web addresses, particularly by those outside the domain.”

Volkmann did not comment on whether the university contacted Tumblr about the site. The university’s general counsel referred all comment to the public affairs department.

Christensen said he has his suspicions about who prompted Tumblr to suspend his account, but the university has never reached out to him in any way about the site.

The blog is of a sort that Patricia Aufderheide would love to see at her campus. “To me it is sharp-tongued commentary that’s funny,” said Aufderheide, a communications professor at American University and co-author of the new book Reclaiming Fair Use. “He was making a comment both about culture at Wash U. and the representation of Wash U. by the PR department.”

Aufderheide said she would be “thrilled” to see one of her students do something similar, as it shows an “alternate definition of school identity.”

Peter Jaszi, an American University law professor and co-author of Reclaiming Fair Use, said the site would fall under the Fair Use doctrine “pretty obviously.”

It would be considered a transformative use of the copyrighted material, and thus protected by the doctrine, he said. The photographs are being used for a different purpose and a different audience, he said.

On top of that, the blog’s pretty funny. Jaszi said he found himself laughing aloud as he read through it. And it’s that reaction that is part and parcel of Christensen’s Fair Use argument.

“If this was actually going before a neutral judge … the greatest likelihood is that the student blogger would be vindicated,” he said.

For Christensen, he’s moving on to his post-grad life and handing off the reins to a few underclassmen to keep the blog going.

His favorite post, he says, is a photograph of an instructor gesturing with both hands up toward the board.

The caption reads: “The key to Washington University M.B.A. graduates’ successes are the skills they learn in Negotiations II: Jedi Mind Tricks.”

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