Not much time for blogging these days as I struggle to edit my LLM thesis (I’ve discovered through the process of pursuing the Master’s in Law that a 25-year career in journalism and marketing gives one a rich sense of strategy, narrative and storytelling purpose, but is in some ways antithetical to writing for legal academia).
I do still hang out on MetaFilter quite a bit, though, and since somebody brought up the famous Pepsi Harrier case on there the other day, wrote up a quick bit on puffery, partly in response to an earlier “all advertisers are liars amirite?” comment.
I got into my LLM (Master’s in Law) program wanting to use puffery as my general topic for exploration, but my thesis supervisor felt it was “settled” law in the sense that it just kind of… works, generally, and there isn’t an urgent problem to be addressed.
As advil says above, it’s not “advertisers get to lie because people know advertisers lie”, the general principle is oriented more around the idea of reasonable personhood*, and the idea that you can state something so outrageous that a reasonable person would not believe it.
This is why there are no court cases where people are suing Skittles because they bought and opened a bag of Skittles and a unicorn did not run into the room and touch their couch with its horn and turn it into Skittles like in the ad. It’s why a pizza joint on the radio can say they have the best slice in town without having to present 40 pages of quantitative data first defining “best” in the context of pizza and then what exactly makes their pizza “the best.”
(I swear puffery is not all potato chip law, I just found the Hawaiian thing while struggling to recall the TGIF thing).
Like howfar says, its roots are in contract law (like the Pepsi example above, or pretty much any time an end consumer brings suit) but legal issues over puffery often cross over into competition law or advertising regulatory bodies where companies will go after each other because they feel another company’s puffery is edging over into falsehood instead of easily recognizable exaggeration.
I regret not being allowed to pursue it as an LLM topic, but (as I have learned, slowly and with great pain) good legal writing tends to be more about an imminent problem in law that requires an urgent solution and some ideas on how to address it, and not just pointing at weird stuff and going “hey, that sure is weird.” Puffery is weird! But it’s not a problem that the courts traditionally have a problem dealing with; it comes down to some judgment calls among the judiciary and sometimes judges get things wrong, but on the whole it’s a pretty understood area that’s relatively easy to navigate.
*but “reasonable personhood” is an amazing topic for exploration, because immense amounts of law rely on this vague cultural idea of “the man on the Clapham bus”, and it’s only in the last couple of decades that people have started to really look at that and go “wow, that’s a super colonial, neurotypical, able-bodied framing that kind of sucks.” If you want a great read on the subject, Rethinking the Reasonable Person is a dynamite monograph by Mayo Moran that meticulously unpacks so much that is horribly wrong with how reasonable personhood is constructed.
Software is copyright protected (the code is considered ‘writing’ in the same way that a novel is writing (you can’t copyright a process, but you can copyright how you describe it, which is kind of what code is considered)). So there are two possibilities here:
The software is creating the music from scratch: it’s programmed with an understanding of scales, chords and instruments. In this case, copyright in what it produces might be the copyright of the software author (see further down); or
The software is a lot simpler and is merely truncating or time-shifting music “stems,” which were written by a human, and all the software is doing is looping/speeding up/slowing down (chopping and screwing, as the kids say). In which case I think the copyright would reside with the music author.
I suspect Photos is the latter, and copyright in this instance is with whoever wrote the tunes that Photos is using, regardless of how Photos is messing with the music when you’re playing with it.
Making things worse, music copyright also breaks down into author, performer, and performance copyright elements; I’m really talking about the authorship question here, but performance rights would also depend on whether this ia a modified piece of existing performed music (it’s chopping and screwing an MP3) or if the music is generated by the software. Music copyright is just the worst.
This is where I don’t know as much as I could — I don’t know what distinguishes an “AI” from “normal” software. The decision here is based on there being no human involved in the actual creation; humans being assisted by AI in the creation of works would still hold copyright in those works.
So even in the first example above (a piece of software generating something), I don’t know at what point it’s an “AI”, or when it’s “just software” and the software author would hold copyright.
I also don’t know where the threshold of “AI” and “human assisted” is: depending on the thought and complexity you have to put into the AI for it to generate something, you might cross a legal barrier where on one side you’re a human that’s putting enough creative complexity into the system that you’re still the author; on the other side it’s just the AI at work.
Per the US decision above, a human has to be at the origin of the work for there to be copyright in it: the AI can’t be an author (nor can an AI perform ‘work for hire’ (which is again not a thing in Canada, exactly) since it is not capable of meaningfully entering a contract).
While this is all fun to unpack, ultimately the prior thing holds — if there’s no specific term-of-service language granting you a non-exclusive license to use the asset, it’s just not safe to use.
A colleague asked me for my opinion on the use of music provided within the Microsoft Photos app (bundled with Windows 10/11) the other day, and what I thought was a simple question turned kind of complicated.
Let’s start off by sayingI’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. And my knowledge of copyright law is that of a punter who’s taken some classes, not somebody who actually works daily in the field and knows it inside and out. I know more than the average person, but I’m neither a copyright lawyer or an academic.
To the best of my knowledge, then:
The quick answer — the safe answer — is “no.”
As a general rule, if you cannot find language that specifically talks about non-exclusive licensing and allows you to use bundled assets in public-facing work, it’s not a good idea to do it.
There are no shortage of people on the Microsoft (and other) forums asking this exact question about the rights to music bundled with Windows default apps:
This page covers copyright in general, but does not include any information on copyright (or use or licensing) of content that Microsoft provides through its software. If you’re looking for more pretty useless information about copyright and the use of MS products, they have you covered:
“Music and sound effects from the YouTube Audio Library are copyright-safe. The Audio Library is found exclusively in YouTube Studio.”
“Copyright-safe” is not a term found in either Canadian or US copyright law, so it’s annoyingly vague to try to guess what it means, exactly. But at least it’s somewhat clear; they also include parameters in the description of each track, such as:
“You’re free to use this song and monetize your video, but you must include the following in your video description: Be sure to attribute the artist. Music ⓒ – Audionautix”
This is similar to a lot of creative commons language, and is easy to understand and follow. There might be something in there a copyright lawyer could pick apart, but it’s solid footing.
Not so with Microsoft Photos. You’re at sea about whether or not you can use the music they put right there in your hands and encourage you to adopt for your projects.
On its face, this feels wrong… right?
If you’re being given the music with the software, and the software is supposed to let you create photo galleries and movies that you can share, it only stands to reason that you’re allowed to use that music.
While this is probably the case — it’s hard to imagine Microsoft going after people who do this, for PR reasons, if nothing else — that’s still not the law.
Essentially, somebody made that music, and somebody owns the copyright for the music.
It might be an individual, or it might be a company or a client they work for. The law is a bit different in Canada and the US about how “work for hire” functions.
But any way you slice it — somebody owns the copyright to the music, and unless there is something in writing that attributes to you the right to use the music… you don’t have the right to use the music. There is no such thing as an “implied” license. Some cursory poking around at sublicenses doesn’t show much in this space; this isn’t extensive research, and again, there may be experts who know more about this than I do at present, but there’s certainly no obvious and accessible jurisprudence granting exemptions for copyright infringement because a piece of software made it easy or convenient to infringe.
And underneath the surface, there’s not a lot of transparency about where the music in the Photos app comes from. Maybe somebody at Microsoft composed and recorded and produced it, and Microsoft owns it all, lock stock and barrel.
But maybe somebody has licensed it to Microsoft, and that license might change or expire, which means the sublicense (which, I want to be clear, DOES NOT EXIST, we’re just playing around here) that Microsoft grants to the Photos app user would then also expire.
A quick note about something, er, noteworthy: those in the public sector should be aware of a recent IPC decision regarding the Halton School Board and its use of browser plugins without adequate vetting and consent.
Colleges and universities normally have fairly strong authorization-to-operate processes, and most major software and SAAS is vetted and reviewed by both IT teams and counsel to be sure it’s up to snuff. But this exposes an interesting area of vulnerability that we don’t often think of; institutions may be recommending or even mandating bolt-ons to services that have not been evaluated and collect information in ways that contravene MFIPPA, FIPPA or your privacy legislation of choice.
As I type this, I’m eyeing Zotero and the Zotero browser extension icon in front of me with some suspicion. I’m sure it’s kosher, but as a tool strongly recommended (but not mandated!) for my graduate studies, how has it been vetted? What information is it collecting? And if the rubber hits the road, what’s my institution’s responsibility in encouraging me to adopt it?
Whether minors being watched out for by their guardians or adults looking out for their own interests, there’s an interesting wedge of privacy concerns here that I suspect are underbaked when we look at building cutting-edge pedagogical processes for students.
As seen on Twitter, and then reported on, they used a photo of a Black person without their consent as part of a campaign for their “Charter for Change” marketing program. Not great — and compounding the mistake, it was a photo of Hadiya Roderique, a well known Black lawyer (not currently practising, but a JD is a powerful thing) and activist championing marginalized voices.
She called them out on Twitter, they replied, acknowledged the error, and removed the photo. Which seems to have satisfied Roderique, per the CBC article, although she’s hoping for the Bay to make a financial contribution to a Black or Indigenous organization (although that seems to more or less be the goal of the Charter for Change program in the first place).
What went wrong?
The cascade here is pretty much what I guessed when it broke. Extrapolating some probable steps, based on my own past in agency work for national/multinational clients: an agency grabbed photos online as part of a pitch, probably one among a batch of concepts they were presenting. Pitch was approved, and somebody went ahead with the pitch concept without doing the due diligence of talking to the original creative team to make sure the right permissions were in place.
And here we are. The Bay has apologized, the photos are taken down, more attention has been brought to the issues of using marginalized peoples’ work without credit or compensation.
But what would Roderique’s options have been had the Bay been obstinate about the whole thing? Or if she decided that the Bay’s takedown and apology wasn’t good enough, and wanted to see how far she could push the issue in the courts?
Never a bad time to mention: I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.
This is a situation where the PR and public shame levers were the best ones to pull — because however you choose to push this to the courts, it’s unlikely that there would have been financial penalties to The Bay that would affect it in a meaningful way.
The copyright angle:
First, there’s the question of using the photo as a creative work without permissions. As Roderique establishes in the Twitter thread, it seems like the copyright is held by another photographer, and not Roderique or the Globe and Mail (where the photo first appeared); likely it was taken by the photographer and licensed to the paper.
Assuming my read of Roderique’s presentation of the photo copyright in the Twitter thread is correct, Roderique herself has no claim here: while she’s the subject of the photo, the right in the artistic work resides with the creator (photographer).
If the copyright holder — assuming photographer, and not the Globe — pursued this, awards for this kind of violation have been historically fairly low; generally about what the photographer would normally charge to license a photo, or an industry-standard amount; figure around $5,000. 1See Chung v Brandy Melville, with the caveat that this is also a case from Quebec’s civil system, albeit one that draws on the federal Copyright Act Amounts that I wouldn’t want to pay for a candy bar, but not exactly bringing a department store chain to its knees.
This is where Roderique herself could look at actions. Publicity / personality rights aren’t that well established in Canada. Where they have been taken to court in the past, it’s usually been in the context of a public figure, such as Bob Krouse or the estate of Glenn Gould, pursuing claims (and — worthy of mention — neither succeeded). Roderique herself is not an unknown person in Canada, but it would be tenuous to say that she has the kind of fame that would make The Bay’s use of her photo qualify as “passing off” — using her name/image as an implicit endorsement of their program based on general recognition of who she is.
BC, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan all have provincial acts that forbid the use of one’s likeness without permission in advertising, but that doesn’t exist in Ontario, and isn’t captured in federal legislation. Since Roderique is in Ontario, and (likely) The Bay is headquartered in Ontario, there probably isn’t much there.2It’s worth noting that at least at the small claims level, a court has recognized appropriation of personality and awarded a nominal amount — $100 — in Vanderveen v Waterbridge Media. So from a precedent perspective, it’s in the books, so to speak.
Success is less assured here. Working through a set of factors defined by Amy Conroy of the University of Ottawa in 20123Amy Conroy, “Protecting Your Personality Rights in Canada: A Matter of Property or Privacy?”, Western Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 1 Issue 1, there are a number of escape hatches for The Bay: Roderique’s relative lack of fame (while she’s well known in some circles, she’s not a public figure to the point that you can immediately profit from her notoriety and likeness), the fact that this is to support a charitable endeavour by The Bay and not direct profit for the company (there’s an argument that can be made here about the marketing/PR value of the campaign for the company’s bottom line, but the campaign is ostensibly about them giving money to charities to support marginalized peoples).
PIPEDA and the OPC:
This is pretty tenuous, but arguably — as Roderique is recognizable in the photo — it constitutes a ‘record’ per PIPEDA’s definitions. You could conceivably pursue a claim with the Office of the Privacy Commissioner about the unauthorized exposure of this record as a privacy violation per PIPEDA.
There, however, the chain of actions in a complaint filing literally makes “Give the organization a chance to address your concern” the second step in the process.4“File a complaint about a business,” Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada When this was brought to their attention The Bay apologized and struck the image both online and in stores, which historically has been seen as a satisfactory resolution for the OPC.
Public Relations vs. Public Relations
It doesn’t take a genius to work out what’s been happening in The Bay’s boardrooms: somebody at some point realized that having a company whose entire history stems from the Colonial exploitation of Indigenous trappers might be problematic. Whether you take a cynical or positive view of this whole “let’s re-invent this whole Charter business” in a direction that drives money to marginalized groups, it’s fundamentally all about addressing that Hudson-sized skeleton in The Bay’s closet.
So calling them out — loudly and publicly — on how they’re building this make-good campaign on the backs of underrepresented people, and exploiting their images to make up for a history of exploitation — a sound, savvy move.
PR damage is the worst damage in this scenario. Quietly pursuing them on legally protected grounds would not be fruitless — if you have time and energy, you’d be putting them in a position where they’d be sinking tens of thousands of dollars in executive time and legal costs to mount a defense that they might lose.
The odds of doing significant financial damage to The Bay are minimal, but drawing public attention to this as a major PR misstep has been a success. Whether you’re taking a sincere or cynical view of The Bay’s “charter re-invention” project, drawing attention to the irony here was an entirely appropriate thing to do.
Would they have reacted with the same speed if it were not a notable Black woman with a law degree and a significant Twitter following? There’s no A/B test for the universe, so again, it falls to whether you’re taking a sincere or cynical view of the campaign’s genesis, management, and intentions.
It’s worth noting that at least at the small claims level, a court has recognized appropriation of personality and awarded a nominal amount — $100 — in Vanderveen v Waterbridge Media. So from a precedent perspective, it’s in the books, so to speak.
Quick quiz: who’s not a lawyer? Me! What’s not legal advice? This!
“Billy Prosser and the Four Torts of Secrecy.” Sounds like a YA wizard novel, right? Well, if we’re looking at the history of privacy law, Prosser was kind of a wizard. He took the raw material of the Warren/Brandeis “Right to Privacy” concept and hammered it into shapes that would be more easily and directly applied by law.
(and frankly, isn’t all law wizardry? The application of will and language to shape reality; creating changes in the world through the power of the mind. Also: a lot of robes.)
(and yes, they’re privacy torts, not “secrecy” torts, but the Harry Potter riff doesn’t work nearly as well that way, and this is how I choose to spend my Sunday mornings, so there.)
When Warren and Brandeis kicked off the right to privacy, they summed it all up by essentially saying their big idea would be more likely to live as torts — people suin’ people, for the layperson — than public law (like criminal law). In “The Right to Privacy,” they identify likely remedies as tort in all cases, and, rarely, injunction. They frame criminal law as desirable but unlikely without legislation.
So, following “The Right to Privacy,” the idea just kind of… hangs there, like an indecisive seagull, for decades. It pops up in all sorts of scattered cases, but not particularly cohesively.
Then, boom! 1960! Ben Hur! Green Eggs and Ham! The Flintstones! And William Prosser writes “Privacy” in the California Law Review.1William L. Prosser, Privacy, 48 Calif. L. Rev. 383, 388-89 (1960)
This wasn’t Prosser’s first kick at the privacy law can.2For a very good overview of the WAB -> Prosser lineage of privacy and torts, and more on pre-’60 Prosser, Richards and Solove’s “Prosser’s Privacy Law: A Mixed Legacy” (California Law Review , December 2010, Vol. 98, No. 6 (December 2010), pp. 1887-1924) is terrific, both as an overview of the evolution of privacy and tort, and a criticism of Prosser’s work and legacy. Working paper at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1567693
It was an analysis of decades of tort privacy cases, culminating in Prosser drawing four broad categories of privacy-as-tort:
Intrusion upon the plaintiffs seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs.
Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff.
Publicity which places the plaintiff in a false light in the public eye.
Appropriation, for the defendant’s advantage, of the plaintiffs name or likeness.
Taking it back to high ed marcomms, all four are squint-and-you-see-it applicable to photo and video capture and consent.
There’s a bit of awkwardness here in terms of how I’m writing, too. At the moment, I’m moving more or less sequentially through time; some of the tort wrong that Prosser identifies become clearer in terms of their application through future cases.
The most applicable of the four are the first and fourth, on their surface.
1. Intrusion upon the plaintiffs seclusion or solitude, or into his private affairs.
Jones v Tsige is the 300-pound gorilla intruding on seclusion in Canadian courts. Where does a 300-pound gorilla intrude on seclusion? Anywhere it wants. In a nutshell, Tsige abused her access at a bank to spy on the financial records of Jones — who worked at the same bank, and had been partnered with Tsige’s ex.4You can read the case at https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onca/doc/2012/2012onca32/2012onca32.html
The big quote is p. 71:
The key features of this cause of action are, first, that the defendant’s conduct must be intentional, within which I would include reckless; second, that the defendant must have invaded, without lawful justification, the plaintiff’s private affairs or concerns; and third, that a reasonable person would regard the invasion as highly offensive causing distress, humiliation or anguish. However, proof of harm to a recognized economic interest is not an element of the cause of action. I return below to the question of damages, but state here that I believe it important to emphasize that given the intangible nature of the interest protected, damages for intrusion upon seclusion will ordinarily be measured by a modest conventional sum.
Sneaky peeks at people’s bank records are a bit of a leap, in the abstract, from “intrusion upon seclusion” in other areas, but the key point here is that Canadian courts recognize that seclusion is a thing, and you can intrude on it.
Let’s also bear in mind that my overall arc here is unpacking consent issues with a particular interest in “public” spaces (and this gets surprisingly fungible in higher ed settings). At first, it seems like “seclusion and solitude” and “public space” is antithetical… but stay tuned, it’s a more nuanced conversation than you think, and part of a larger philosophical and legal conversation about privacy and context that’s been raging for decades now, and will be covered in upcoming posts.
For now, let’s take it on faith that yes, even if somebody is in a public area, you can still intrude on their seclusion or solitude. And that photographs can be as intrusive as snooping in bank records. I know that might not be satisfying at the moment, but trust me, we’ll get there.
4. Appropriation, for the defendant’s advantage, of the plaintiffs name or likeness.
The last — “appropriation for advantage” is the other clear issue. Again, this is something that seems kind of clear-cut at first. It’s easy to trace this as it pertains to for-profit businesses; if you snap a picture of me without me knowing, and suddenly it’s on billboards coast to coast advertising beer, that’s a no-brainer (and for “false light” as well — what if I’m a known speaker against alcohol? A youth pastor?).5A good overview of appropriation at the McCarthy blog, here: https://www.mccarthy.ca/en/insights/blogs/snipits/future-everyone-will-have-their-personality-misappropriated-15-minutes
In higher ed, though, we tend to self-identify as the “good guys,” and my feeling is there’s a fuzzy sense that we can get away with more because (a) non-profit, (b) education is good, and (c) kind of a wibbly crossover between the oft-mentioned, oft-discussed fair use (U.S.) fair dealing (Canada) exceptions to copyright kinda sorta making us think that everything a college or university does is fair-dealing-esque.
But… well, no. We might be “good guys,” but we’re not exempt from the same strictures that govern for-profit business when it comes to exploiting images for “advantage”. Note that word — it’s advantage, not gain. The assumption that we’re not making money from something doesn’t move us out of the ‘advantage’ zone. Higher ed is in this very weird space where we’re collegial but also competitive — universities are notionally supposed to all get along and work together, but at the end of the day we’re also out there pitching and brawling to attract the very best students, researchers, research funding, donors… “advantage” starts shading very differently when you think of the various competitive spaces we exist in.
Stepping into more explicit legislative language, in Canadian jurisdictions where violation of privacy is a statutory wrong, it still paints a much broader picture than “profit”. For instance, in B.C.:
(2) It is a tort, actionable without proof of damage, for a person to use the name or [likeness, still or moving] of another for the purpose of advertising or promoting the sale of, or other trading in, property or services, unless that other, or a person entitled to consent on his or her behalf, consents to the use for that purpose.6Hie ye to the B.C. Privacy Act – https://www.bclaws.gov.bc.ca/civix/document/id/complete/statreg/96373_01“sale of or other trading in, property or services…” I wouldn’t bet the farm on wriggle room here.
“Appropriation” here is a slippery legal construct because there’s a ton of overlap with prior torts — both misappropriation of personality, and “passing off,” which are also their own things. To my limited knowledge, there’s no precedent in Canada for the specific Prosser appropriation tort, as a privacy action, without that gloss into the other areas as well. But my knowledge is admittedly limited.
And — and this is important — to date, misappropriation of personality (the non-privacy-related tort) has generally been advanced by famous people, in pursuit of damages that would equate to royalties received had they granted permission for their likenesses to be used.
To date — to my knowledge — there hasn’t been a “normal citizen” misappropriation case before the courts that’s seen success. A recent case in point is Hategan v. Farber, 2021 ONSC 874 — Hategan, a former member (and self-declared “former female face”) of the Heritage Front7let us sit for a moment with the fact that the “former female face” of the Heritage Front was basically named “Hate again,” and marvel brought suit against Farber, a television host, for appropriation of personality for… essentially, talking about her, it looks like. The judge, in a claim for summary judgment:
Yes there is a tort of wrongful appropriation of personality. This tort is not made out. It is not ever a “close call”.8Get your law readin’ on at https://www.canlii.org/en/on/onsc/doc/2021/2021onsc874/2021onsc874.html, at 117. Incidentally, this is a great rubbernecking case if you’re into reading court decisions that don’t go at all the way the plaintiff thought they would.
So there’s clearly a commonly understood sense of what appropriation of personality entails, and to date it’s been a hard threshold to reach. But that doesn’t mean impossible, or impossible forever.
What about the other two?
2. Public disclosure of embarrassing private facts about the plaintiff.
“Public disclosure of embarrassing facts” is less easy to see in higher ed marcomms; first, there’s a strong internal inclination to capture and show positive things, so it’s hard to easily see a marcomms agenda that sets out to disclose anything that somebody might find untoward.
In Yenovkian v. Gulian 2019 ONSC 7279, a judge went above and beyond previously established tort awards in finding against a husband who had made wildly inaccurate public claims about a spouse in a custody case. This is one of the introductions of “cyberbullying” into Canadian law, and the judge actually pulls directly from the American Restatement of Torts:
Publicity Placing Person in False Light
One who gives publicity to a matter concerning another that places the other before the public in a false light is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if
(a) the false light in which the other was placed would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and
So we’ve got the U.S. idea, and even the test, now in Canadian law as precedent.
It’s… challenging to see how this would affect my current point of focus, which is photo/video capture and consent. But it’s interesting that it’s on the books in a broader sense, and may be worthy of note in higher ed in general, considering the sheer volume of social media drama/noise that can be generated during things like, say, student council elections.
The other thing to note is that in a general sense, informed consent solves everything in terms of the above tort categories. Eh, almosteverything. And this is where we get into the philosophical foundation versus the practical elements of consent management.
I kind of want to park that for now, because a lot of the case law stuff coming up starts overlapping with the philosophical stuff that’s also coming up. Suffice it to say that there’s a natural tension in consent formulation: the consent-seeker is best served by consent that is broad, general and all-encompassing. But the notion of informed consent is best served by consent that is specific and well-articulated.
This distinction becomes clear when you start thinking of the outcomes of these torts, particularly #3 and #4. Let’s stay mindful of the overall needs of the institution’s marketing and communications mechanisms. A photo taken of a student doing one thing at a particular place and point in time could potentially be re-used for a radically different purpose. I may actually write up an incident from my own career as a case study next week.
This could conceivably trigger various Prosser torts in various ways, unless consent is either amazingly broad at the moment of capture (and consent well tracked), or a lot of effort is put in to re-seek consent for new purposes as they arise.
A final note on Prosser — he definitely moved privacy law from a kind of abstract notion in to something with more form and substance — as we can see above, his American formulation of privacy torts has now made its way completely into Canadian law. But that doesn’t mean Prosser was all that and a tube of Pringles. I’m grateful to Rchards/Solove’s “Prosser’s Privacy Law: A Mixed Legacy” as a great read that identifies some key gaps in Prosser’s proposed formulation, and some inadvertent damage it may have done in the long haul.14That link once again: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1567693
Next week, a quick case study of how the higher ed marcomms machine can run into trouble when it repurposes photos. After that, we’re going to take a look at some privacy law theory that develops after Prosser, and the growing legal theory that context might be super important (spoiler: it is!).
William L. Prosser, Privacy, 48 Calif. L. Rev. 383, 388-89 (1960)
For a very good overview of the WAB -> Prosser lineage of privacy and torts, and more on pre-’60 Prosser, Richards and Solove’s “Prosser’s Privacy Law: A Mixed Legacy” (California Law Review , December 2010, Vol. 98, No. 6 (December 2010), pp. 1887-1924) is terrific, both as an overview of the evolution of privacy and tort, and a criticism of Prosser’s work and legacy. Working paper at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1567693
Hey! It probably goes without saying that I am not a lawyer and nothing in this blog is legal advice. But I’m saying it anyway!
The first thing we read in my privacy law class was “The Right to Privacy,” Samuel D. Warren and Louis D. Brandeis.1Samuel D. Warren & Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193 (1890). First published in the Harvard Law Review in 1890, it’s generally accepted as the initial stake in the ground for privacy rights. While there’s a lot that follows in the intervening 130-plus years, it firmly establishes the right to be “let alone,” a phrase made famous again in 1955 by Greta Garbo (and repeated in 50% of law school papers on privacy).*
When you read it, the inciting behaviour is clear: gossip, specifically “society columns” in the newspapers of the day. Look at how tightly this article is bound to photography. Taking the introduction of “to be let alone” in the article, photography kicks off the very next sentence (emphasis mine):
Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right “to be let alone.” Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life…
And we’re off to the races! Thanks to Warren and Brandeis, hereafter WAB, because it’s short and also because it’s a lot like WAP and that’s fun for me.
I’m making a big deal out of this because as a higher ed marketing & communications professional, photos are a very big deal.And this is (broadly speaking, there are antecedents2I highly recommend Solov’s “A Brief History of Information Privacy Law” — Solove is going to come up a lot in this series, I think, including next week when we look at Prosser. Daniel J. Solove, A Brief History of Information Privacy Law in PROSKAUER ON PRIVACY, PLI (2006).) — WAB even mention that it had “already found expression in the law of France”3WAB’s footnote mentions the Loi Relative a la Presse of 1868, which is very elusive to find, or find writings on; if you are or know a French historical legal scholar, maybe you’d have better luck than I tracking this down — the kick-off for the very notion of privacy rights, which are the legal construct that leads to photo/video consent as both a practical and philosophical necessity. We can’t talk about consent without talking about privacy… and we can’t talk about privacy without talking about WAB.
So here we are, discovering that photography is baked right into the history of privacy-as-a-right.
It’s no secret that “The Right to Privacy,” while far-reaching in scope, was inspired by Warren’s profound irritation with what we’d call paparazzi today, who crashed and wrote about a society wedding.4Prosser, W. (1960). Privacy. California Law Review,48(3), 383-423. doi:10.2307/3478805 The word “paparazzi” was still 70 years from being coined — eponymous for a character in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita — but clearly photographer-as-pest was enough of a common social ill, even in 1890, to resonate.
It’s fun, if pointless, to wonder whether the idea of a right to privacy would have arisen, and in what form, if photography hadn’t gone the way it had — or if people had left the family wedding alone, or if WAB had thicker skins. Things rolled out the way they did. It’s interesting, though, to look at subsequent developments in privacy law and note how correlated they are with identity and revelation: presentation, photography and video as the drivers of a lot of our notional understanding of privacy.
So what is privacy, as they frame it?
Privacy is a negative right
Right out of the gate: privacy isn’t a right to do something, it’s a right to not have things done to you. WAB: “It is like the right not to be assaulted or beaten, the right not to be imprisoned, the right not to be maliciously prosecuted, the right not to be defamed.”
It’s not copyright, libel or slander
WAB go to some pains to ensure that the right to privacy is distinct from existing rights. Copyright is identified as a branch of property law. They do, however, use the idea of privacy law to colour in areas around copyright law. Where copyright law would protect a literary or artistic work, it still doesn’t prohibit the sharing of details or facts about people’s lives. WAB sketch out scenarios of letters between husband and wife, or a catalogue of gems that would be ruinous to a jeweler if released. “If the fiction of property in a narrow sense must be preserved, it is still true that the end accomplished by the gossip-monger is attained by the use of that which is another’s, the facts relating to his private life, which he has seen fit to keep private.”
Libel and slander are deemed to protect “the material, not the spiritual” (197) — protecting from damage and injury to reputation. The proposed right to privacy, unlike libel / slander / defamation, does not offer the truth as a defense, however.
It’s constrained by practical matters
The authors also set out some fences that mesh with fairly common-sense propositions: once something is published (by consent), it’s no longer private; matters “of public interest” aren’t private (so publishing the backroom dealings of a politician are fair game, for instance). Constrained “privileged” publication, such as in court, government committees, or other public bodies, don’t violate the right to privacy. Oral violations would likely be without redress, because the damage would be very limited.
No malice required
They also take pains to point out that an absence of malice is no defense — that personal ill-will is not a requirement of a violation of the right. This is a through line with tort law — ill intent generally isn’t necessary to be held responsible for intentional acts.
Setting the table for 130+ years of privacy evolution
Warren is the guy who looks like a turtle soup magnate on the left, Brandeis on the right looking like he’d be right at home presiding over an orphanage in a Dickens novel. It’s fun to imagine them popping their monocles over gossip columns — but this was a big idea; important work, that would leave gossip in the dust over the next century-plus and become a foundational concern for society today.
They also weren’t shy about tossing a little hyperbole in the mix:
If casual and unimportant statements in a letter, if handiwork, however inartistic and valueless, if possessions of all sorts are protected not only against reproduction, but also against description and enumeration, how much more should the acts and sayings of a man in his social and domestic relations be guarded from ruthless publicity. If you may not reproduce a woman’s face photographically without her consent, how much less should be tolerated the reproduction of her face, her form, and her actions, by graphic descriptions colored to suit a gross and depraved imagination.
Although privacy law now covers everything from financial data storage to how censuses work, my interests, as somebody who works in higher ed marketing and communications, are still in roughly the same ballpark as WAB. As somebody who is responsible for creating, and publishing, a lot of pictures and videos in a lot of different ways, how can I do that in a way that upholds the spirit of a right to privacy, while still operating effectively and efficiently?
It’s a compelling question, for me, and I’m going to keep diving into it for a while.
Sidebar: so who was Judge Cooley?
Because I get curious about things, I couldn’t help wondering who “Judge Cooley” is. He’s actually the cited author of the four-word “to be let alone” phrase that anchors this whole thing. It’s like if I wrote a long essay saying that somebody should, as the Fonz says, “sit on it”, and I become known as the genius who first established that somebody should sit on it. I should hope that future scholars would one day work to uncover this mysterious “Fonz” from who these words of wisdom came.**
Cooley (Thomas M.) seats the right “to be let alone” in a general treatise on torts from 1879; in Chapter II of A Treatise on the Law of Torts or the Wrongs Which Arise Independent of Contract, “General Classification of Legal Rights,” he lists “Security in person” as one of the rights that a government is expected to recognize.
In that vein, and following “Right to Life,’“ “Personal Immunity” is the second right he lists; and here’s where we get to it (emphasis mine):
“The right to one’s person may be said to be a right of complete immunity: to be let alone. The corresponding duty is, not to inflict an injury, and not, within such proximity as might render it successful, to attempt the infliction of an injury. In this particular the duty goes beyond what is required in most cases; for usually an unexecuted purpose or an unsuccessful attempt is not noticed. But the attempt to commit a battery involves many elements of injury not always present in breaches of duty; it involves usually an insult, a putting in fear, a sudden call upon the energies for prompt and effectual resistance. There is very likely a shock to the nerves, and the peace and quiet of the individual is disturbed for a period of greater or less duration. There is consequently abundant reason in support of the rule of law which makes the assault a legal wrong, even though no battery takes place. Indeed in this case the law goes still further and makes the attempted blow a criminal offense also…”5Cooley, Thomas M. A Treatise on the Law of Torts or the Wrongs Which Arise Independent of Contract. Chicago: Callaghan and Company, 1879; pages 23, 29.
This is actually pretty interesting. Cooley is engaging in a pretty straightforward description of assault and battery. (Fun fact: in Canadian law, there is no “battery” in the Criminal Code — “assault causing bodily harm” carries the weight there. But “assault” and “battery” are still torts; as you can infer from the criminal distinction, “battery” is the physical harm portion, and “assault” is the menace. If I run up to you with an axe, screaming, and swing the axe but stop it an inch shy of your face — that’s still assault, even if no physical harm is done. It’s actually a pretty broad category of things (including throwing a cat!).6He doesn’t cite the case here, but if a lawyer is going to say that throwing a cat is assault, I’m not going to miss this opportunity to write about it. John Erikson, “What are the different types of assault charges in Canada?” at https://ericksonlaw.ca/different-types-assault-charges-canada/
So, in A Treatise on Torts, Judge Cooley is describing “a right of complete immunity: to be let alone” in the context of the legal wrong of assault.
WAB have picked up Cooley’s turn of phrase originally used to describe assault — inflicting credible menace on somebody — and turned it to the purposes of privacy.
This is not an accident — they even describe the evolution of assault from battery on the previous page. Judge Cooley and A Treatise on Torts would have been a seminal book by 1890. So it’s fair to say that WAB knew exactly what they were doing with the lift, knowing that their audience would also likely be familiar with Cooley: invading my privacy is a form of assault.
Also worthy of note — significant mainly in one of the exceptions — consent is also part of the DNA of this first stake in the ground. It comes up a few times in the document, particularly as one of the limitations of the proposed right. Interestingly, the paper’s longest footnote concerns consent via copyright, contract and photo reproductions, substantially quoting North J in Pollard v Photographic Co. on contracted use of negatives.
And — also worthy of note — is the fact that on their surface, WAB, through one lens, failed. If they were writing in the hope of stopping the dissemination of society gossip, a quick trip to a supermarket checkout counter — or any news website — will show that society gossip, evolved into celebrity gossip, is far from gone. The seeds of contemporary gossip-mongering are captured in their very own exception to the idea of a right to privacy: “The right to privacy does not prohibit any publication of matter which is of public or general interest.” This is a massive and swampy grey area, that we’ll get into with century-later court cases involving supermodels and princesses. Stay tuned! But if their goal was to shut down the gossip industry and ensure that the private lives of the rich and famous could not be touched by the grubby, ink-stained fingers of those filthy journos… this was far from an unqualified success.
So let’s keep the following in mind as we meander through the evolution of privacy as a notional right, with a particular interest in privacy in public…
Photography is comingled with the genesis of a legal right to privacy
As is consent (but as a factor that waives privacy rights)
The authors lifted language used to describe assault to define this right to privacy
Next week: Prosser, and the next big hop forward in conceptualizing privacy… for good, and for ill.
*In one of pop culture’s more famous misquotes, she was frequently reported as saying “I want to be alone,” which she clarified in a 1955 interview as having actually said “I want to be let alone.” If you don’t grok the distinction, read on!
**It turns out that the Fonz didn’t actually say “sit on it” very often — it was more commonly said by Joanie and Mrs. Cunningham. Ayyyyyyy!
Samuel D. Warren & Louis D. Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harv. L. Rev. 193 (1890).
I highly recommend Solov’s “A Brief History of Information Privacy Law” — Solove is going to come up a lot in this series, I think, including next week when we look at Prosser. Daniel J. Solove, A Brief History of Information Privacy Law in PROSKAUER ON PRIVACY, PLI (2006).
WAB’s footnote mentions the Loi Relative a la Presse of 1868, which is very elusive to find, or find writings on; if you are or know a French historical legal scholar, maybe you’d have better luck than I tracking this down
Prosser, W. (1960). Privacy. California Law Review,48(3), 383-423. doi:10.2307/3478805
Cooley, Thomas M. A Treatise on the Law of Torts or the Wrongs Which Arise Independent of Contract. Chicago: Callaghan and Company, 1879; pages 23, 29.
In a role where I’m part director and part do-er, I keep a very active hand in everything from composing Tweets to writing five-year plans. I came up through the business as a mutt, with everything from community radio to professional journalism to strategic marketing under my belt.
But among all the past experiences, I think comics writing has been the most valuable.
It was never my job, in the sense that it was paying me a full-time salary. At the best, I got pizza money; for the vast majority of my work, nothing but the joy of doing it. There was one time where a creator-owned series I did got optioned and was being pitched around for a prestige TV adaption, but that’s a story for another time.
But the joy was in the doing, as my friend Adam reminded me recently.
It was also in the learning!
I legitimately believe that every creative person should try comics, for a while, at least once. Not just one page, and not just writing, but the whole process. I’ve been a writer for 99% of the comics I’ve done, but have tried my hand at full process at things like 24 hour comics jams. I was a very good artist when I was in the third grade, peaked in the fifth grade, and think I can now draw about as well as most fifth-graders. It doesn’t stop me from making comics, and it shouldn’t stop you either.
At the moment, though, let’s talk about marketing, writing, and writing for comics.
What does writing for comics teach you?
Economy of language
This is tops. Especially in some formats of comics. I’m in the process of moving a decade of a daily strip I did with my good friend and brilliant art madman James Duncan to the blog. It was a M-F four-panel comedy strip that was also a serial story, about a man who was bitten by a radioactive man and gained the proportionate abilities of a man. It was called Man-Man.
Here’s the thing about a four-panel daily strip: it has to be punchy. You have four panels a day to tell a story. Given panel size constraints, you really shouldn’t have more than two people on a panel, sometimes three. You shouldn’t have more than 10 words in a word balloon.
So — while it never paid in money — writing a long-form serial adventure, that unfolded in four panels a day, where there were never more than two people speaking at once, and only speaking in bursts of 10 words or less — it paid in experience.
I am a wordy SOB, and this was hard. Bleed-from-the-eyes hard. It was not, admittedly, super funny sometimes (that’s on me, not James). But expressing what needs to be expressed — and striving to end in a joke every day — taught me in immeasurable amount about compact writing.
Never tell what’s showing, is essentially the golden rule. If a character is pulling a gun, having them say “I’m pulling a gun!” is pointless. If the artist has invested the on-panel action in the gun-pulling, he’s freed you up to have that character say something else entirely. It can be prosaic and additive (“I’ve been waiting five years for this, Tompkins!”), or show disassociation (“Nice day for a picnic, isn’t it?”) or even lunacy (“The banana people live under the stairs!”).
Point being, getting a handle on how text should complement image, and not be redundant to it, is critically important. Text can even contradict an image, for some sort of jarring narrative effect, but it’s another form of economy that comics teaches you real fast.
The passage of time, and scenes
Scott McCloud, certified genius and comics-maker, talks about this a lot in his book Understanding Comics, which I’d argue should be in every creative’s library. The space between comic panels (“gutters”) contain fungible amounts of time and movement, and every unit of comic (panels) can leap through time at the speed the author desires. I’m mildly mangling the word “fungible” here because it’s kind of an exchangeable commodity, in that you can choose to have the gutter or larger panels, and the division depends on how you want the passage of time, or a split in locations, to be perceived in the narrative — going full comics nerd at this point, sorry.
It’s a low-cost, intensive way to really understand how time works in narratives, and a great way to cut your teeth for future video production. Will your next shot be the next moment in a sequence, or five years later? Will your next shot stay in the same place, or take you to a new location?
I call everything I do “storytelling” in internal conversations, which I’m sure makes some of my colleagues think I’m a pretentious weirdo sometimes. But they are! Every social media post is a story. Every news item is a story. Every research profile is a story.
Comics make you tell stories while thinking on that image/text mesh plane. Above and beyond that mesh, you’re also thinking of beginnings, middles, and ends. This isn’t exclusive to comics, but it separates the good’uns from the bad’uns: what’s your act structure? What are your impact points? What do you need a full-page splash for, versus a tiny inset panel?
Tell a story in 24 pages of nine-panel grids. Then tell a story in a single page with 12 small boxes of art and words. Then tell a story in a four-panel comic strip. Then in one big image/text combo.
Once you can get ideas down in a single panel that have a beginning, middle and end, and marry compelling art with prosaic text, you’re ready to write a tweet. Or film a killer Tik-Tok minute. Or even write a 3,000-word feature, but mindful of what pictures you’ll need at the other end to make it sing.
The project that broke me was a crazily ambitious series called Rise, Kraken! that at one point had a group of agents for an international crime organization called Kraken trapped in a facility with killer panda bears that spoke through Speak-n’-Spells grafted to their chests, being pursued by an army of hundreds of howler monkeys. At another point, zeppelins were being taken out by weaponized War Tubas. I haven’t put it up on the site yet because I need to find the art (and ask the artist for permission to post it). I wrote an adaptation of Captain Blood, the classic novel of piracy, with full-on multi-ship naval battles raging throughout the narrative.
More than any other medium, comics let you think big. As much as they force economy in the word balloons, there’s an infinite canvas of ideas and space you can draw on. There is no better training ground for the imagination.
The infinite budget is trapped within a confined physical space. Usually something about as big as a letter-sized piece of paper. Sometimes just a comic strip. Sometimes a two-page spread. Your omnipotent powers are trapped in a box of a certain size, and you have to deploy all of the above skills — mastery of the economy of language, the word/text mesh, the passage of time and space — to have the infinite idea translate into a very finite space.
Learning to work with artists
Comics artists are not in it for the money. It’s a notoriously difficult profession to break into and stick with. Also true for writers, but while a writer can write a comic in a few working days, it takes an artist at least weeks to draw one. So the investment ration in the writer:artist relationship is way out of whack.
Since writers are also conventionally the “idea people,” it’s frankly a weird dynamic. Sometimes you luck out and find an artist who is completely in sync, and totally committed to the bit, and you take it as far as it goes.
Often, though, the artist — stops. They’ve found a better-paying gig (or a paying gig, period), or they’ve lost interest, or there isn’t a payoff to the project that seems evident and they want to focus on other things. Unless you’ve got a lot of money to pay them to follow through on things (I didn’t), you can’t really fault them. You can cajole, wheedle, promise, negotiate — but you’re ultimately powerless in the hands of another to see something get to fruition.
It gives you a ton of hands-on experience in sharing an idea, inspiring somebody to get on board with it, and then being as consistent and reliable as humanly possible on your end to ensure they get what they need to succeed. Some artists need things explained in complete detail. Others much prefer “I need a fight scene here, and it has to end like this.” You learn to work with all sorts of other creatives, from the affable to the temperamental.
[This is a bit of a demarcation line -- from here it’s less “what can you learn from working on comics for a bit” to a more diarist “what did I learn from a decade-plus of beating my head against a wall”. You can skip down to the end if you want to avoid the maudlin bits.]
Learning to pitch
This is getting a little far afield of what anyone can learn by doing comics for a while. But part of the process when I was trying to make a go of it was pitching comics companies, large and small, to see if they’d be interested in what you were doing. In retrospect, I think all of this would have been much easier if I’d been in a place where I could form relationships, instead of in Sherbrooke, Quebec for the bulk of this part of my life.
It was, again, a tremendous skill to learn. How do you package something to get somebody’s attention? What do publishers need to know vs what audiences need to know? How do you sell something with a 2-3 sentence email that entices somebody to take the time to open and read the attachment? It’s its own art, and concurrent with working as a copywriter, then strategist with a national ad agency, it was a good art to learn.
Learning to fail
You may have noticed I’m not a professional comics writer. Which is fine — with time and some tempering, I can even admit to myself now that if I’d been given the opportunity to pursue it, I’d be a solidly b-list writer: probably pretty good, with solid ideas and sound writing, but not up there with the Alan Moores and Grant Morrisons, Dwayne McDuffies, Kelly Sue DeConnicks, Tom Kings, etc. I would have been fine. I would not have been great.
Through one lens, my comics-writing “career” was a succession of failures — good ideas that never found an audience, drawing-board projects that never found a publisher, amazing ideas that never found the right artist to even push through the pitch phase.
The “coulda, woulda, shoulda” has been painful at times. Even loading old projects onto the blog (and I’m not even 10% there — I did a lot over almost two decades of striving) is bittersweet. No fewer than four of my former collaborators have their own Wikipedia pages now, which feels weird. My wife had to see me through a legitimate identity crisis about five years ago, when we went to a comics convention in Toronto and I ran into a few collaborators who were cutting their teeth at the same time as me and are now thriving in the industry.
For a very long time, though, I would get myself up, dust myself off, find as much passion for one project as I had for the last, and plunge back in. The “final” project was one I truly believed would set the world on fire, crashed and burned when the artist involved just decided to stop working on it with no further explanation, and that… capsized me. That was the hard stop — I haven’t written for comics in the decade-plus since.
Not the passion, though — that just started to go in other directions. Creativity at work, other personal projects — even, eventually, this thing right here. There’s no shortage of outlets for the creative spark if you’ve got it and want to invest it somewhere.
But I learned a ton from not succeeding. Every non-success was its own learning process, and contributed to all of the above — economy of language, an understanding of the mesh of art and language, developing a relationship with the passage of time and space. It also built scar tissue, and the ability to put disappointment behind you and move on to the next thing. There’s always a next thing.
In short, make comics
It doesn’t have to be a big thing. But you can do it today! Now! Grab a sheet of paper, draw some boxes, and have Stick Person 1 go on a little adventure. Think about the infinite possibilities inherent in that blank page, but also the tremendous constraints of that physical space. Hell, just take a bunch of panels from an existing comic and draw over the word balloons. But get in there and experiment. See how the words mix with the images and complement (or contrast) them.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a favourite phrase of my grandfather Shepherd’s — “the lazy man’s burden.” I’m not sure of its provenance, but he’d use it whenever we were visiting the cottage and he’d see me or a sibling staggering down the hill from the driveway, trying to carry too many things, dropping things and having to stop and pick them up, and so on.
It would have made more sense to make multiple trips with fewer items, but we were lazy. Staggering under the burden.
“The lazy man’s burden” — struggling with an unnecessary load, rather than doing a little more work that would have resulted in less effort and anguish overall.
Laziness on the brain
It’s been an exceptionally busy year for a normally busy job, and I can feel a certain… haste start to creep in around the edges of my work. Decades doing The Work has given me a sixth sense that starts to whisper you’re cutting corners in the back of my mind.
And sometimes cutting corners feels good. You’re getting things done! Knockin’ stuff out of the inbox! Ticking things off the list! Yeah!
On the cottage porch in the back of my mind, Grampa Shepherd, smoking his pipe and shaking his head, is rightly pointing out that the lazy man is creating burdens:
First — fast work sliding into sloppy work.
When I work fast it gets things out the door, to be sure.
But it’s an invitation to mistakes, and undoing a mistake is a massive investment of time and labour, not to say a significant loss of face. Deleting and retweeting a tweet, editing a Facebook or Instagram post, replying to comments saying “actually…” — it’s a lot more work than taking the five minutes to take a breath and compose something well would have been in the first place.
Second — production over people.
This one is more insidious. I work with highly gifted teammates, on both sides of the management structure. Amazing staff, great bosses.
The immediate instinct to just get it done or just fix it without having a conversation of what’s being done and why — or talking through a task that somebody else really should be doing, then having them do it, work through issues, and have them get it right — once again, it’s the lazy man’s burden. I’m doing things not because it’s the best way. It’s just the expedient way.
The galling thing is that I’m not only creating more work for myself by taking on too much — see the first point — but I’m making a system worse by breaking it. And I’m robbing other people of the opportunity to learn and do. I work with remarkable people who are up to just about any task; not delegating and training to just “get it done” is a bad habit to get into, and harms more people than just me.
Checking my head
Like everyone in this work I feel burdened from time to time; that’s a good moment to head-check myself and ask if I’m burdened with good work, or if I’m taking on a lazy man’s burden, and it’s time to look at workload and pace. Doing the latter can be difficult. It should be — it’s the antithesis of the lazy man’s burden, and that means that’s the burden that probably should be borne.
Bonus scone recipe
I write these on Sunday mornings, and with a lovely day outside it felt like a scone kind of morning. These bad boys took about 40 minutes, pillar to post. Walnut pieces inside, some maple sugar sprinkled atop.
Preheat oven to 425, mix flour, sugar and stir-ins in bowl. Stir in coconut milk until just combined Turn onto floured surface, gently fold 4-5 times for even texture/not sticky. Don’t overmix. Add more flour if dough sticky. Dough should be a ‘lovely texture’, not sticky / not dry. Shape into 8-inch square, cut into 8 triangles using pizza cutter. Keep pieces together. Brush last tbsp. of coconut milk on top, sprinkle w/ tsp. of sugar. Bake on parchment paper, top rack, 17-20 mins. Let cool before reglazing (if desired).
Anyone who has grown up in a small village (I did) knows that all villages are weird, in their own Robertson Davies Deptford kind of ways, but this village is weird.
The strange thing about this village is how people talk to each other.
There are lots of people here: Joe, and Mohammed, and Jessica, and Fatima, and Desiree, and Matt (that’s me!), and Dr. Pebbles the vet, and Gord the butcher, and Linda the florist, and so on.
But nobody talks to each other. When they have something to say, they all go to one person.
She lives in the middle of the village, and spends all day every day conveying information from one person to another. She is Santa Clausian in her powers to flit from eye to eye and ear to ear instantaneously.
But — regardless of her speed and alacrity (or maybe because of it), she is the conduit through which all talk passes.
If Joe wants to shout to the rooftops that his dog just had puppies, he goes to her to spread the news. She is the gatekeeper for Fatima to share pictures of the pie she just baked. Gord the Butcher is having a sale on Bavarian sausages, a recipe passed down from his grandmother — he goes to this woman. And so on.
Nobody can hear from anybody else except through her.
She controls what everyone in the village sees. There is no way for one villager to talk to another villager directly, unless she instigates that conversation.
Her name is Allie Go’Rhythm.
Here’s the thing about Allie.
Allie is, as stated, the gatekeeper for all news in the village.
She’s also… unpredictable.
She might share Joe’s puppy with everyone in the village, but she might just tell Fatima (because Fatima likes dogs) or Mohammed (because Mohammed is friends with Joe). Or both, or neither. It depends on what other news reaches her ears that she thinks Fatima and Mohammed might want to hear.
Allie has some sort of complex internal system, which she discloses to nobody, about what she’ll share, and with whom. If you look at its patterns, it makes a certain sort of sense, but there’s also a certain lurking dread that Allie is actually just clinically insane.
She remains the sole conduit for news-spreading, however. So if Gord wants to tell the whole village about his Bavarian sausage sale, he must go to Allie. And Allie may, or may not, spread the news.
Here are a few other things we know about Allie:
Allie wants to make sure people only talk to Allie. She’s greedy that way. She doesn’t want them watching Netflix, or going for a walk in the woods, or playing Frisbee with their dog, when they could be talking to Allie. So when Allie is deciding what news to share, she looks at the past history of the person she’s getting the news from. Have people been interested in Joe and Joe’s life in the past? Are people clamouring for more Joe? If yes, Allie will gladly spread Joe’s news far and wide. People love hearing about Joe! If Allie is talking about Joe, people will want to talk to Allie. And Allie only wants people to talk to her.
But if the last five or six times she’s shared Gord’s sausage news, people have grunted and walked away… Allie’s not going to tell people about Gord’s grandmother’s recipe. Gord seems to turn people off. Allie doesn’t want to turn people off… she wants people to talk to her, and only her.
She doesn’t always tell the truth.
Allie has… a loose relationship with the truth and accuracy. She’s just sharing the news! She doesn’t make it. But if Matt’s wild stories about the mayor being a lizard person are getting people excited and engaged, and every time Allie shares a story about the lizard people theory the whole village gets hetted up and only wants to talk to Allie about lizard people — Allie loves it! She loves it when people talk to her! So she’ll happily share that news; if she’s called out, she might mention that the story seems a bit dubious. In some circumstances she might even stop listening to Matt. But generally speaking, Allie’s motivation is to keep people talking to Allie. No matter what. Allie’s really into politics, and controversy, and whatever keeps people engaged with and talking to Allie.
She spreads secondary as well as primary news.
Allie will also tell people how other people reacted to news. So if she only tells Fatima about Joe’s puppies, and Fatima doesn’t react, Allie doesn’t do much. She files it away in the “maybe Joe is boring and I should tell fewer Joe stories” pile. But if Fatima responds, then Allie judges Fatima’s reaction on kind of a sliding scale, and then decides which of Fatima’s friends to share her reaction with. A dry nod might not generate much. If Fatima smiles, Allie might consider sharing Joe’s news with some of Fatima’s friends. But if Fatima leaps up with a delighted laugh and claps her hands and says “how excellent for Joe!”, Allie will tell all Fatima’sfriends how delighted she was — and in so doing also share Joe’s puppy news.
The important note there — Allie is still taking in, parsing, and distributing stories according to her inscrutable Go’Rhythm ways. Fatima and Joe might be conversing directly about Joe’s puppies, in a conversation Allie instigated, but how other people learn of this news is still dependent on whether Allie shares it, or not.
So Joe is compelled to make his puppy news as thrilling as possible. He’s competing with Matt’s loony lizard people theories! That’s a tough act to follow.
She knows and cares about your networks.
Allie cares about what the people in the village care about. And who. People can declare to Allie that they want to stay on top of news from certain other people or businesses. And Allie will deliver their news faithfully, to a point… if Mohammed says he’s interested in what Gord and Fatima have to say, Allie will share Gord and Fatima’s news faithfully with Mohammed. But if Mohammed declares he is friends with thousands of people, and following hundreds of businesses, Allie will fall back on her “boring/not-boring” dichotomy to decide what Mohammed needs to hear.
Allie can be bribed.
You can pay Allie money to have a much higher chance she’ll spread your news. She still might not! But she’ll at least consider it, and she only makes you pay for the news she actually spreads. This does not, however, affect Allie’s current opinion of you and your stories as “interesting and worth sharing” or “boring and not worth spreading.” Her contractual relationship to spread your news is totally disconnected with her daily news-spreading routines.
What does this mean?
We all live in the village. For whatever reason, the vast majority of us are here.
And we’re all subject to the whims of Allie Go’Rhythm. Our relationship with Allie, and our dependence on her, has had a number of consequences.
Our communication has drifted, over time, from detailed to symbolic. Busy people want to get as much news from Allie as quickly as they can. Allie wants to keep as many people interested as she can. So if we want those people to react when Allie shares news, and ensure Allie keeps sharing our news, we have to make that news as dramatic, arresting and exciting as possible.
In some ways, that makes us better communicators: more succinct, more mindful of getting to the core principle or point of things.
In other ways, that makes us worse communicators: sacrificing nuance, context and depth in favour of impact.
It also puts communicators into a terrible state of dread and uncertainty. We can tell Allie things, but we can never be certain who she’ll share them with or why. We make decisions about what news to share based on what news Allie likes to spread, not what news is important to us… or we choose to take risks on Allie’s largesse and tell the stories we think need to be told, and hope they find an audience if she chooses to share them. We run contests and hold events just to get villagers to tell Allie they like us, in the hopes she’ll share our news with them.
Here’s where it gets especially weird.
There’s more than one Allie.
There’s more than one storytelling network in this village.
Allie Go’Rhythm actually has a number of sisters, and they all run their own story-sharing systems. Some people like Allie T. Go’Rhythm more than Allie F.B. Go’Rhythm, others prefer Allie L.I. Go’Rhythm.
But all members of the Go’Rhythm clan share the same core attributes: they are the sole intermediary through which news gets to their network. They all want you to talk to them and never do anything else — especially not talk to another Go’Rhythm sister. Well, Allie F.B. Go’Rhythm and Allie I.G. Go’Rhythm are actually twins, and — that’s a whole other thing.
They’re also all slightly different, so telling Allie I.G. Go’Rhythm something that she spreads far and wide might have radically different results with Allie L.I. Go’Rhythm.
What’s your relationship with the sisters?
Do you spend your time courting one Go’Rhythm sister, learning the intricacies of her likes and dislikes, or do you woo all the Go’Rhythms at the same time, knowing that what works with some might not work as well with others?
Do you spend money on one Go’Rhythm because you think she talks to the villagers you want to reach? Or all of them? Or none?
When one of the Go’Rhythms has gone sour on you and your news, do you aggressively pursue her to win her back, or do you focus on the others, trusting that your natural charm will winnow you back into her good graces?
These are not questions with answers. Anyone who claims to know the Go’Rhythm sisters to the point of absolute predictability is a liar, or a fool mistaking good luck for pure knowledge. Some people have a better idea than others, and some have invested time and study to develop a very good sense — and even then, only a sense — of what a particular Go’Rhythm sister might like or do. But the sisters are fickle, and may change their own internal logic at a moment’s notice.
This is the village.
This is where we live; you can generously look at it as where we choose to spend time, or more negatively as where we’re all trapped. Ultimately, though, it is a choice, and it’s one that almost everybody has made at some point.
We all live here with Allie. Allie’s not going anywhere.
So we’re all finding ways to work with her and her sisters; changing what we say and how we say it, hoping to find favour, claiming genius when we do and cursing our bad luck when we do.
This is the village. Population… call it about four billion. That’s a lot of people.
All clamouring for Allie’s attention and good graces.
We work for managers, and clients, and bosses. We work for satisfaction and achievement and triumph. We work for good causes and for financial gain.
But at the end of the day we’re all working for Allie.