This midnight hour finds me in Sherlock Holmes mode. Lately, I am on a reading jag into which I sometimes fall, about the topic of tropical fish. One would imagine, from my reading and writing on the subject, that I might be an Authority or a Fanatic Hobbyist. But dilettante would be more the word, and I would use it loudly except that I am worried that I love words like declasse and dilettante and no doubt pronounce them wrong.
I'm reading about Dr. Herbert Axelrod. Dr. Axelrod is a well-known aquarist, whose publishing company, TFH, produced all these gorgeous tropical fish books with tons of colorful photos, chockful of information. These books seemed to pop up on the remainder shelves quite often, allowing one to own a work of piscine art for smatterings of swimming Washington fish.
Dr. Axelrod's works entertain me often. I somehow, in my mind, had him in mind as a German aquarist, writing works I could read only in translation. Tonight, though, I learned that Dr. Axelrod is actually a New Yorker. Further, he was "on the lam".
It seems that the government indicted him for doing things like funneling monies to an female alleged associate rather than ensuring that proper taxes were paid all around. The curious thing is that Dr. Axelrod's indictment was not met with a vigorous defense, but instead with the announcement that Dr. Axelrod had decamped to Cuba. He lived in the Marina Hemingway, just outside extradition power. i do not know if he is still there. I love Cuban restaurants, by the way, but I throw that in only for local color.
The articles I read punched holes in the paperbag I had constructed in my mind about Dr. Axelrod.
First, there were the charges about the Innes affair. William T. Innes published a book called "Exotic Tropical Fish". This book was originally published in the 20s or 30s. The book is quaint, enjoyable, and filled with one thing which is nothing short of miraculous.
I know it is chic in some circles nowadays to claim that anything accessible, representational and humbly wonderful can't really be art. But that is not my view. Dr. Innes' book contains gorgeous plates of art. He had artists take black and white photos of fish, and then paint them to look like the real species. The result was a series of definitive and yet life-affirming color plates of the most beautiful fish one could ever imagine.
Dr. Innes' editor over at Aquarium Magazine, though, claims that Dr. Axelroad plagiarized those pictures for use in Axelrod's later book, "Exotic Tropical Fishes". Now the Axelrod book is a stock resource, so that this was quite a charge indeed. Supposedly, Axelrod had the fish sections of the Innes color plates edited so that only the fish showed and not the background. Innes supposedly won a victory in the resulting lawsuit, but only nominal damages, damages being limited on the theory "what's the harm in one more artsy fish in this world?"
I launched into research in a legal database to try to confirm or rebut this statement. I did not find the Axelrod/Innes suit, which is not really a big surprise, as trial court level suits are rarely in the official reports, and if I cared enough, I'd have to dig into the trial court records of the suit to see what really happened.
But I did find the curious tale of Florida Parrot Jungle v. New York Parrot Jungle. You see, Florida Parrot Jungle was a nature preseve. New York Parrot Jungle was a set of pet stores and parrot promotions by Steve Kates, author of "Encyclopedia of Parrots". The case was a rather cut and dried trademark suit--Florida Parrot Jungle had "made the name their own" and New York Parrot Jungle infringed it. But what made the case interesting was the fact that "Encyclopedia of Parrots" was published by TFH, which was Dr. Axelrod's fish press. The trial judge in the Parrot v. Parrot case further noted in his decision that a promotional photo used by the New York Parrot Jungle is actually an edited logo picture from the Florida operation (pretty cool evidence, if you ask me). The court then makes this statement: "One Herbert Axelrod is credited with being the photographer. Axelrod, it turns out, is the editor of the book and he and Kates worked together closely in assembling it. Axelrod testified before me on behalf of Kates and gave a flustered and implausible explanation when confronted with the use of the doctored logo". The court, needless to say, found Dr. Axelrod a less than wonderful witness. Mr. Kates, almost needless to say, had a bad day in court. The court felt this obvious failure to take seriously the oath of a witness matched up with the obvious weird weaknesses in Kates' implausible case, in which he claimed he knew of the Florida outfit, but called his business a jungle because friends told him it was like a "parrot jungle".
I'm a bit intrigued by all this, because I want Dr. Axelrod to be the fellow who writes 500 pages tomes about arcane fish species, and not the guy who edits parrot photos taken by others and then takes credit for them. I'd rather Dr. Axelrod not go on the lam for taxes, or be accused by acquaintances of being unduly litigious. I've long ago decided that we all have feet of clay, and I feel waves of guilt sometimes at my own shortcomings and folly.
But somehow a fish tank ought to be different. Somehow a hobby ought not be cutthroat. I want everyone to be like Dr. Innes, getting wonderful color frames made to create a definitive fish reference. But life is more complex than that. I think all one can do, though, is to resolve to love fish, and not to plagiarize them.