The Case of Blackbeard’s Anchor

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Allen v. Cooper, a case centered around the issues of copyright and Blackbeard. My worlds are colliding!

The Allen in the case title is Rick Allen, who owns an underwater video and photography company called Nautilus Productions LLC. In 1996, Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, was discovered in North Carolina waters, and afterward Nautilus contracted with Intersal Inc, the company that located and identified the wreck, for the exclusive image rights to the recovery operation. This meant that no one else was allowed to take photos of the shipwreck in situ (which is beyond the ability of most photographers anyway as the wreck lies 28 feet down about a mile offshore) or of pieces and artifacts of the wreck as they were brought to the surface. I’m not sure what the status was of photographing the artifacts once they reached dry land.

The state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources lacked the funds to recover the Queen Anne’s Revenge themselves, so they hired Intersal to salvage it instead. In return for foregoing any claim to the artifacts, including coins or precious metals, Intersal was granted exclusive media and replica rights to the wreck. This allowed Intersal to profit on their salvage work by creating educational media and other promotional materials. Bear in mind that because the wreck belongs to the state of North Carolina, Intersal never had a claim to the artifacts in the first place.

Turns out your humble blogger Jackson once had a run-in with Allen and Nautilus over this very issue. Way back in 2009, I posted an update when the Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project (the aegis of the state, Intersal, Nautilus, and who knows who else) raised a grapnel anchor from the seabed. I illustrated the post with a photo of the anchor taken from North Carolina’s own project media page, which is to say, my source ended in .gov.

Now, generally speaking, using images or photos from government sites for newsworthy purposes is considered fair use. When quoting text from a source, public or otherwise, it’s fair use if you quote less than 10 percent of the whole body. Photos can be dicier because no one uses 10 percent of a photo — they show the whole thing. Furthermore, not all government entities have a grasp of fair use or even basic copyright: when I was writing Smedley, the Connecticut State Archives demanded that I request permission to quote any sources in their possession by filling out a separate form for each citation, claiming that they owned the copyrights to all of their materials. This is complete and total bullshit, of course, because nobody owns the copyright to letters or documents written 230+ years ago, so I never complied. But again, complications notwithstanding, generally it’s OK to use stuff from government sites for journalistic purposes, particularly when the page is designed as a digital press release, as was the case here.

A couple of years after I wrote that post, I received a very aggressive email from Nautilus Productions threatening to sue me. They claimed they had exclusive permission to all images of the wreck, and they demanded that I pay them three times the cost of the image’s price as compensation for this alleged crime of reprinting their photo on my site.

I responded that I was happy to take the photo down — again, the post was already a couple of years old at this point — but I added that I’d taken it from North Carolina’s own project page, so fair use. A few days later, I received a much more conciliatory email suggesting that I could keep the photo as long as I added a credit to Allen and Nautilus Productions in the caption. I had the impression they hadn’t known about the photo on the state page beforehand and they realized their accusation of infringement against me was weak.

I added a strikethroughed credit to the post but removed the photo — like I give a shit about a bunch of chuckleheads who can’t even figure out who has permission to use a photo of an 18th-century anchor. In journalism, when you write something bad about someone you’re not surprised when they resent it, but nothing is as frustrating as writing good or at least neutral news, only for the person to whip around and bite your hand like a snake. The whole incident annoyed me so much that I stopped reporting about the project on the blog altogether.

Apparently, that photo wasn’t the only image used by the state against Nautilus’s wishes, and in 2013, all of the parties — North Carolina, Intersal, and Nautilus — clarified their positions regarding photos and videos. They started quarreling again soon afterward, and Nautilus sued the state for copyright infringement, to which the state argued the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act gave them sovereign immunity from lawsuits. The North Carolina legislature also passed a law making all photos and videos of state shipwrecks public domain (dubbed “Blackbeard’s Law”), which further pissed off Nautilus and added to their litigation. Intersal also separately sued the state.

No excavation of Queen Anne’s Revenge has occurred since 2015 due to all of the lawsuits.

The case as it stands now before SCOTUS is less about pirates and photographs than it is about sovereign immunity. You can read a full summary of the case’s history here, and even take a headlong dive into the weeds with the transcript of the oral arguments here (pdf).

While I don’t begrudge Intersal or Nautilus some means of compensation for their salvage efforts, I’m also dubious of private companies claiming exclusivity of resources or research when tax dollars are involved (I’m looking straight at you, Elsevier). What I don’t understand is why North Carolina didn’t specify that Nautilus must provide them with a certain amount of open content for public relations; or if they did, why the state then violated the agreement. Governments are as fickle and arbitrary as diseased raccoons, so I can imagine North Carolina’s state attorneys changing their minds while the ink was still wet on the 2013 settlement.

On the other hand, if no such agreement existed, then Nautilus’s naivete of the political environment is astounding. The politicians who write and pass the budgets, not to mention the public who pays for them, will want to see pictures of the shipwreck they’re partially funding, so Nautilus should’ve thrown them some freebies. If that’s what happened, then Nautilus has nothing but their own greed to blame for their current legal hell.

We’ll find out what SCOTUS decides next summer.

Story Terrace

Late last year, I scored a gig writing for Story Terrace, a UK-based company that’s expanded into the US.

Story Terrace publishes memoirs and autobiographies ghostwritten by a stable of authors, who interview the subject at her home and then compose a finished book complete with photos and a professional layout. The company has gone through several rounds of investment, including a crowdfunding effort this past summer that raised more than £617,000.

So far I’ve written three books of varying lengths for Story Terrace: the first was a memoir of a successful lawyer about his years growing up in Queens in the 1930s and 40s, while the other two were biographies of an Italian-American couple and an Irish-American woman, all of them immigrants who left the poverty of their homelands and achieved the American dream. It’s fun and rewarding work — much more rewarding, in fact, than I had anticipated.

Initially I was reluctant to write about the gig publicly because the position was originally advertised as “ghostwriter.” Years ago, in addition to the bylined articles I wrote for them, I did some ghostwriting for Dig and Calliope, the children’s magazines about archaeology and history, which I was actively discouraged from talking about.

That, I now realize, was ghostwriting of a very different stripe. The editor loathed having to deal with PhDs with their jargonized writing styles, outsized egos, and complete lack of respect for any form of deadline, so in a few cases she found it easier to assign the writing to me and then, after a cursory review by the academic in question, slap Professor Snootynose’s name on it. I didn’t particularly care about the byline — as long as the check clears, I’m good — but I was also sworn to super-duper secrecy with cherries on top, lest the professor be unmasked as a fraud by his peers, ridiculed, and driven like a mangy dog from the ivy-covered halls. The editor took pains to stress how seriously I needed to keep my lips shut — because we all know how tolerant our colleges and universities are.

The work I do for Story Terrace is ghostwriting of a less stringent sort. It’s work-for-hire, meaning the copyright goes to the customer, but I get a small credit inside the front of the book so there’s no top-secret surreptitiousness involved.

Further, Your Most Obedient Servant actually receives a commission for referrals that lead to projects, so if anything, the company wants me blabbing about it nonstop (not to mention that they have my headshot on their front page). I’m happy to recommend them.

So — if you or someone you know has always said, “I should write a book,” but never has, Story Terrace may be able to help make it a reality. The company has three different standard packages you can buy or you can tailor a project specific to your needs. All of the projects I’ve worked on were commissioned by adult children for their parents to capture their memories and experiences before they were lost forever. If you’re interested, just drop Story Terrace a line and mention my name. If you’re local, we can even arrange for me to write the project.

Makes a great stocking stuffer!

Blue Roofs

Baptist church, San Juan.

Last month, my oldest son and I spent a week in Puerto Rico volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service.

I first heard about MDS in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I subsequently learned they have a strong reputation within the disaster-relief world, largely due to the fact that they draw upon the Mennonite community for volunteers, many of whom have hard construction skills. At the time we had a newborn so running off for a week without my family was unfeasible, but I bookmarked MDS in the back of my mind.

Fast forward to 2018, where a combination of headlines, my son turning 16 (the minimum age for MDS work), and my dad’s passing inspired me to sign up. There was something else too. Looking at the world around me I notice the two commodities in scarcest supply are health and wealth, and it’s dawned on me that maybe I need to do more to help those who don’t possess what I take for granted. A common game to play with kids is, If you could have any superpower what would it be? The usual answer is the ability to fly or turn invisible. But lately I’ve wondered if maybe some of us wake up with powers every morning but don’t even realize it.

Somewhere between Cayey and Aibonito.

MDS has ongoing projects in Aibonito and Utuado, both in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, and Ponce, on the southern coast. I had been very concerned about the heat — real-feel temperatures in Ponce can break 100 — but as luck would have it we were assigned to Aibonito, which is nicknamed “the Fridge of Puerto Rico” for its cool climate. We arrived on a Saturday and, after waiting a few hours in San Juan for the rest of our party to arrive, drove into the mountains to Aibonito, 2,400 feet above sea level.

I soon learned Aibonito is home to a substantial Mennonite community, which includes a parochial school and a hospital. Our hosts, Harry and Linda, had restored what was once the hacienda on an old sugar plantation. Linda’s father had been a leading figure in town and she had grown up in the casa. Years later, she returned to the island to learn the house had fallen into bad disrepair; one thing led to another, and the couple stayed to renovate it. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving — I guessed we might be sleeping on bunk beds in a trailer — so to me staying in a historic early 20th-century plantation house was five-star accommodations.

A closed special-education school in Aibonito.

Last year, as a result of its ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico closed 167 schools and another 265 are scheduled to be shut down soon. According to the PR education secretary, enrollment is declining by 20,000 students every year and more than half of the island’s schools have less than a 60-percent occupancy rate. We saw three different shuttered schools in the seven days we were on the island.

Only happy when it rains.

Because my son and I were the only ones to bring rain gear, we volunteered to work outside on Monday, which is when “hurricane remnant” Beryl hit the island. Hurricane Maria had torn the roof off the largest building at the Academia Menonita Betania, the local parochial school. Getting the Academia into functioning condition before the fall was a priority, and our project leader John was staring at a hard Tuesday deadline for a pump truck and cement mixer to arrive and pour concrete for the footing of the new roof. Unfortunately, the forms — the molds for the concrete — hadn’t been completed, so the three of us worked in Beryl’s downpour, climbing and hammering on second-floor scaffolds. We finished the following sunny morning and the concrete was poured successfully. Steel trusses will arrive in August with the roof following afterward.

Once the mad scramble to finish the forms was done, we didn’t have much to do beyond stand around and watch the concrete crew work.

The rest of the week we worked with the others in our group (there were five of us, along with John) to complete work at one house — paneling with T1-11, doing finish trim, hanging doors — and install the metal roofing on another. This second house, located in the bush far west of town, was the highlight for me as I’d always wanted to install a steel roof.

Blue roofs are an ubiquitous sight on the island; FEMA has distributed 126,000 blue tarps and the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary roofing on almost 60,000 homes, though neither FEMA nor anyone else can give specific numbers on how many roofs need replacement. Bear in mind that neither FEMA nor the Corps has actually replaced any roofs — that’s been left to either homeowners or volunteers.

We installed the fascias and gutters too.

Because building codes aren’t well enforced on the island, MDS has its own engineer-designed protocols for rebuilding, many of which echo Fortified techniques. Studs are anchored to the foundation and beams are strapped to the studs; plywood is screwed (not nailed) to the beams and joists, and a weatherproof sheeting is laid over the plywood before the steel roof is screwed down with more than a thousand screws. Overkill for sure, but meant to survive any future Cat 5 storm that blows off the sea.

The homeowner was living temporarily in his parents’ house across the street, taking care of both his elderly father and his brother, who is wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. He and his wife cooked lunch for us everyday — following it with some of the best café con leche I’ve ever tasted — and they couldn’t have been more gracious. They struck me as good, honest people who’d been dealt some bad cards, and all of us were grateful that providence — or maybe Providence — had aligned the teeth of our cosmic gears.

The beach in San Juan. Actual color.

Strange as it might sound, by the end of the week I felt energized and refreshed, almost as if I had been on vacation and not making forms or screwing down roofing. And, in fact, one of the best ways to help Puerto Rico is for tourists simply to return. While damage from Maria is prevalent, PR is far from any sort of post-apocalyptic setting — one night, my son and I ate at the McDonalds in Aibonito — and unemployment on the island is 9.3 percent, still staggeringly high by US standards but the lowest rate for PR since 2000. MDS isn’t the only relief group active on the island; at the airport we saw Mormon volunteers as well as gaggles of teenagers belonging to various groups, and there are many opportunities for voluntourism as well.

For once I’m too humbled to have any grand takeaways about the experience, though it warmed this shaggy steppenwolf’s heart to be surrounded by folks acting upon their faith to help others in very tangible ways. I truly believe you make the world you live in — if thoughts become actions, then our shared reality is an expression of our individual minds. The implications of this can be both disturbing and hopeful, and while I’m by nature inclined to dwell upon the former, I make it a point to focus on the good.

The Privateers of Black Rock Harbor

On Wednesday, May 30 I’ll be giving a presentation at the Fairfield Museum and History Center on the privateers that sailed in and out of Black Rock Harbor.

There’s a fine line between a pirate and a privateer — and it’s as thin as a piece of paper issued by the government. Come hear how such Fairfield luminaries as Thaddeus Burr, Samuel Smedley, and Caleb Brewster as well as many other “gentlemen of fortune” banded together to attack the British on the high seas during the Revolutionary War.

I’ll talk about the differences between privateers, pirates, and traditional navies; how the booty from captured ships was divided not only between the owners and the crew but between the officers and sailors themselves (a scheme that relates back to the Golden Age of Piracy); and how many of the privateers in Black Rock didn’t sail aboard large ships but rather hunted in wolf packs of armed whaleboats.

The lunchtime presentation starts at 12:30pm. Full details here.

The Dead: Now Riding Even Faster!

The Dead Ride Fast is now available on Smashwords and through a number of e-book retailers, including the iTunes bookstore.

I was reluctant to list The Dead Ride Fast with Smashwords and didn’t include it in my original marketing plan for the book, instead choosing to upload directly to each individual site. The price for maximum control was convenience, but as previously noted, control has been my overriding goal from the start.

Smashwords markets itself toward the, shall we say, less technically skilled e-book publisher. Their process uses a Word doc as the basis of an e-book, which it then transmutes into an epub via proprietary software called Meatgrinder before distributing it to retailers. As there is no way on God’s green earth you can produce a svelte, 100-percent functional ebook from a Word doc, I initially refused to consider Smashwords as a venue.

However, upon failing to list The Dead Ride Fast on the iTunes store, I reconsidered Smashwords as an end-run around Apple’s cumbersome process, and after some snooping I discovered you can upload a finished epub of your own making to Smashwords, thereby bypassing the Word/Meatgrinder channel. The only downside is that homemade epubs have to pass a manual inspection for compliance, which (I think) the Meatgrinder products don’t have to endure. That inspection delayed availability for a few days but was hardly a dealbreaker.

Once an e-book is accepted by Smashwords they blast it to practically every e-book retailer on the planet, so if you prefer some other store beyond Amazon, it’s probably available. For a full listing, head over to The Dead Ride Fast page on Goodreads and shop away. Don’t forget to leave a review there or anywhere else! Five stars are a writer’s bread.

You may also notice some shiny updates around this site, including a fresh author photo and a brand new contact page. Too shy to leave a public comment? Feel free to reach out in a non-creepy way by sending a DM! Or even reach out in a creepy way. ‘Tis the season, after all.

In a Modern World

Back in the fall as I was returning to writing after being laid off from my main hustle, I had an alarming string of bad luck pitching articles. Not only did my pitches fail to sell, but their recipients couldn’t even be bothered to respond to them; and not only did they not respond, but these recipients were either editors or markets to which I had made previous sales, or at least were very friendly to me on Twitter. Follow-ups were likewise met with stony silence. Welcome, Jackson, to the newest flavor of New Media.

I told myself that everything I was doing was wrong and immediately set out to do everything — anything — completely differently. What did that mean? Well, I consciously moved away from my usual subjects, like history or politics, and targeted markets that I had only recently discovered, markets that tended to be less visible. Almost immediately I made a couple of sales, the latest being an article for Nifty Homestead about a favorite hobby of mine.

For me the takeaway of 2016 is that everybody needs to pull their shit together. I had predicted that Clinton would narrowly win Florida, allowing her to limp to a weak victory over Trump. I was very much in error. But here’s the thing: it’s not my job to watch elections. I’m someone who takes a casual interest in the news, and when he does, focuses more on local than national politics. Meanwhile the vast majority of news outlets whose content revolves around things like elections completely imploded in the months leading to November 8.

In the back of my head I always thought that if I landed a writing gig, either freelance or salaried, for a mainstream-ish publication I would be in clover. Now I look at many of them and recoil. While Trump was winning Middle America the ostensibly serious and strait-laced Atlantic published this. More recently the co-founder of The Federalist thought this was good content. Vox and Salon are parodies of themselves. None of it is news, fake or otherwise. It’s Twinkie filling.

I’ve recently discovered Medium. It’s an odd, nonintuitive place, basically a blog aggregator except a few of those aggregated are paying markets. Some of it is dreck; there’s a lot of “I fed the pigeons at the park today and have #feels about it.” But I’ve also found some gems too, like Pacific Standard, which has terrific feature writing, and the history site Timeline. It’s where I’ve been going for thoughtful analytic journalism, and with the exception of the Washington Post, nothing I’ve encountered on there could be construed as mainstream. Of course, it figures the day I write this, Medium closed two offices and laid off a third of its staff.

Do everything different. With Trump soon to be in power and media muckety-mucks falling on their asses, I feel a strange optimism entering 2017. Quoth Conan the Salaryman the morning after the election,