Tumblr shuts down photo caption parody

| Editor in Chief

Correction appended below.

A popular student-run website was taken down after its host claimed that it used copyrighted material illegally.

Wash U Photo Captions, a blog started by senior Alex Christensen, has garnered up to 1,000 page views per day since its debut last December.

But on Tuesday morning, Christensen received an email from Tumblr, the microblogging platform used to host his site, saying that Wash U Photo Captions had been taken down because it used images copyrighted by Washington University.

Christensen is fighting back with claims that his blog used the images as parody. Legally, parodies are exempted from restrictions on copyrighted material.

“The point of a parody is that you want it to be as much a copy of the original as possible in order to make fun of the original expression,” said Denise Lieberman, an adjunct professor at the University and practicing St. Louis lawyer. “Saturday Night Live is a perfect example of this; so is Weird Al Yankovic.”

Wash U Photo Captions gives new, humorous captions to the background photos from the official Washington University website. The image on the official website is changed daily and depicts various aspects of life and education at the University.

For example, on March 25, the University’s official caption for a photo of students sticking their heads out of the Ridgley arches was “Students find fun in the beautiful Ridgley arcade. The university’s 11,834 full-time students and nearly 2,100 part-time students come to Washington University and to St. Louis from all over the nation and world.”

Christensen’s caption? “After WUPD had to break up several disputes started over what it means to be ‘found,’ philosophy graduate students were banned from playing Hide and Go Seek in Brookings Quadrangle.”

Though there has been no direct communication between Christensen and the administration, Christensen thinks that the University sent a cease-and-desist letter to Tumblr asking for the blog to be shut down—a phenomenon that, legal experts say, is not uncommon.

“It’s easy for large institutions to bully the little guy, especially when the little guy’s content doesn’t reflect well on them,” said Scott Granneman, an adjunct professor of law at the University.

Phone calls from Student Life to the Office of General Counsel were not returned Tuesday afternoon.

Granneman speculated that the University is likely making a Digital Millenium Copyright Act claim. Under this law, online service providers such as Tumblr can be held liable if they are found to be hosting illegal uses of copyrighted material. As a result, Granneman says, hosts such as Tumblr, Blogspot and YouTube often act instantaneously upon receipt of a notice.

“These hosting companies often shoot first and ask questions later. A lot of them will react directly without asking questions. I’d say that Tumblr isn’t doing a responsible job of looking into this,” Granneman said.

Granneman added that Christensen should be able to continue to maintain the site, especially if he adds a notice stating that the blog’s use of copyrighted material is done exclusively for the purpose of parody and that the blog has no affiliation with the University.

However, it is possible that Wash U Photo Captions may not fall under the legal definition of parody because Christensen’s captions often pose alternative meanings for the University’s photos instead of amplifying their initial expressed meanings.

Regardless of the University’s role in shutting it down, Christensen hopes that he will be able to reinstate the site in the near future.

“I’m just really disappointed that it’s been taken down,” Christensen said. “I think it’s useful to have something that is openly mocking about the student experience at this university because that’s really something that people can be open about and reflect on. This is a place where we share ideas, and the University has presumably come in and tried to shut that off.”

Students say that they’ll miss Christensen’s captions. “Wash U Photo Captions gave character to the University’s formulaic and hokey pictures of a lab coat-clad professor and a student pointing at a computer screen in unison. I’m sad to see it go,” sophomore Peter Birke said.

Christensen said that the site brought a newfound sense of irony to what many students consider the University’s inferiority complex.

“We’ve become a really important institution in the past 20 years or so, and we’re still coming to grips with that. A lot of people here think that Wash. U. is a great school, but there’s still something in them that makes them think it’s not as good,” Christensen said. “The University is very self-conscious about its image, and accordingly, it has this brand new website with these photos that are a little silly and corny. Wash U Photo Captions brought out the humor in that.”

Correction: In the original posting of this article, it was reported that Scott Branneman is an adjunct professor of law at Washington University. The professor’s last name is Granneman. Student Life regrets the error.

  • emanon

    It seems to me that WUSTL is simply protecting against unauthorized use of their images and are not trying to “bully the little guy”. Every institution has the responsibility to protect against misuse of their products and assets. It’s the reason copyrights exist.

    SNL skits and Weird Al’s “impersonations” by contrast to copyrighted works, are achieved by close resemblances and allusions to the original which is why it is considered parody. It appears that the images used were pulled directly from the wustl.edu website as-is (in violation of the copyright plainly visible on the website… as on almost EVERY website.) There is also a difference between a parody of a public persona and that of using protected intellectual property.

  • DC

    Great intitutions need to have a thick skin, albeit public or private. Hiding behind the copyright ruling seems a bit thin-skinned to me.

    You cannot laugh at someone else unless you have the fortitude to laugh at yourself.

    Bring back the parody!

  • Alex

    I’m not sure if StudLife was aware of thie site, but Wash U Photo Captions is continuing on Twitter until the Tumblr site comes back: http://twitter.com/#!/WUphotocaptions

  • anonymous

    Why doesn’t Wash U just get rid of those dumb pictures that appear on the website anyway? Or how about actually hiring a good/legitimate web designer that makes the university look as good as it actually is and give the site a clean, professional look? At most schools, the website makes the institution look better than it actually is. For Wash U, it’s the opposite. It’s so surprising WU’s web presence looks the way it does given that, on every other dimension, the university is so pristine and professional.

  • Libby

    I believe the quotes attributed to Scott “Branneman” should actually be attributed to Scott Granneman, a fine adjunct professor who teaches courses on technology, security, and the Internet (http://www.granneman.com/).

    On behalf of Scott’s students, however, I want to thank you for the error, as it will be thoroughly “discussed” in the next class and provide much entertainment.