Joel Watts, Neil Godfrey, Censorship and Dishonesty

This blog is not normally a venue for telling tales, but I really rather angry about this, so I want to document it here.

On June 25, Joel (a doctoral candidate who blogs at Unsettled Christianity) posted the latest retort in an ongoing trade of insults and arguments with Neil Godfrey (a professional librarian and amateur historian who blogs at Vridar – [NB: this is a new address as of today, for reasons that will become clear]). The post is short, quotes another person’s tweet in full, and mostly consists of a series of links.

On June 26, Neil responded on his blog quoting the short post in full and responding in detail to each link. Using unkind language and personal insults which have been de rigour on both sides of the exchange.

Joel, claiming to be concerned merely that Neil had quoted his content in full without permission, issued a Digital Millenium Copyright Act takedown notice. Neil claims not to have received the notification, and so did not respond appropriately, whereupon WordPress suspended his account, and removed Vridar from the web.

So much, so unpleasant. It is highly unlikely that Joel’s copyright infringement claim would have been sustained in the courts, but the DMCA shoot-first-ask-questions-later system means that issuing the takedown notice is an excellent method of censorship. But as is, this could be a case of thin skin and a glitch escalating something that could have been resolved.

But what motivated this post was a trip to the cache. Google’s cache shows that Joel had the following message on the blog post on June 26:

Copyright message as of June 26

Copyright message as of June 26

Sometime in the last few hours, as this issue began to draw consternation, Joel changed the copyright to read:

Copyright message as of June 28

Copyright message as of June 28

This change was not for future posts: he changed it retrospectively, so the old posts, including the one Neil quoted, have this new copyright message.

So Neil quoted a Creative Commons work, Joel decided he didn’t like this, issued a DMCA takedown notice and retroactively changed the license on the work to make it look like Neil did not have the rights to copy it.

This is not acceptable in any way. I would imagine Neil would easily be able to recover any costs and lawyers fees involved from Joel. But beyond that, it is a seriously two-faced way to behave.


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35 responses to “Joel Watts, Neil Godfrey, Censorship and Dishonesty

  1. I don’t really have a comment, except that the kind of dishonesty that you describe needs to be exposed. So I’ll thank you for investigating this.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Passionate debates and even criticism are to be expected in the blogosphere, but when bloggers attempt to censor others and cover up their dishonesty, that goes well beyond what is acceptable. I wonder if Watts’ blog deserves to keep its ranking in the top biblioblogs listings for that.

  3. Jonathan Burke

    Neil abused me repeatedly when I referred to him as a librarian in a post I made on my blog. I wonder if he will do the same to you. Joel Watts, whoever he is, has clearly disgraced himself with dishonesty.

  4. Let me guess, Mr Watts is a Christian? One of those people who keep telling us that Christian ethics and morality are necessary foundations for our civilisation, and yet who are so often found to be totally lacking in integrity and intellectual honesty?

  5. Unsettled Christianity, indeed. Perhaps more like destabilized.

  6. Ian

    Jonathan – Re: Neil’s profession. Neil has been known to visit here, and has been very civil. My description of him was meant to be neutral, but I’m happy to amend if it comes across pejoratively.

  7. Thank you. I have posted a full account of what happened from my experience at

    And no, I never abused Jonathan Burke for calling me a librarian. That sort of claim is as mischievous as anything one expects from the likes of Joel himself.

  8. arcseconds

    the Wayback Machine has a CreativeCommons sharealike non-commercian attribution licence on April the 30th:

    While of course it doesn’t prove what the licence was on the 25th of June, it does lead creedance to Ian’s account (which I’m disinlcined to doubt anyway, but the Wayback Machine is at least concrete evidence that the blog did have a creative commons licence recently).

  9. According to Joel Watts you have to be an “uberbuffoon” to think that Neil had a right to copy the work that was marked as cc.

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  11. I had successfully posted several comments on Joel’s blog this morning, but my last two attempts seem to have been blocked. In essence they consisted of the following: “By posting the Creative Commons License on your blog, you granted greater rights of use than those provided by DMCA. It is no defense to claim that WP failed to discover this when you failed to inform them and covered it up.”

  12. Ian

    arc – I have an archived copy of google’s web cache for the post in question from the 26th June. Because Google refreshes its cache every couple of days, I figured there was no point posting a link, as the link would change to the new copyright. But I saved the webcache version, just in case. The page has now been totally removed from the google webcache, not updated, just removed. However, the post from the following day is still in the google cache and shows that the creative commons license was in place on the 27th:

    But bear in mind the evidence at that link will also disappear in the next couple of days, or sooner if Joel asks for that copy to be flushed from the cache.

  13. Ian

    @pithom – thanks for the link, it is interesting that the actual post on the science of history has been removed from google’s cache it appears. I have a full copy here, so if anyone wants a copy of it to be sure, let me know.

  14. Ian

    @vinny – thanks. You’re a legal bod aren’t you?

  15. geoff

    Thank you for exposing this. I posted several times to the forum, but the topics got closed.

  16. Jonathan Burke

    Neil Godfrey on March 3, 2013 at 8:49 pm
    JB, you are the mischievous one, aren’t you. On the one hand you say Tim both posts as and identifies himself as a “sceptical blogger” — though “scepticism” is but one of several descriptors he applies to himself — while on the other hand you say that I identify myself as “a librarian” though “librarian” is only one of many descriptors I apply to myself.

    It is clear that you choose the labels you use for reasons that are not forthright and that are more underhanded than you are prepared to admit.

    Neil Godfrey on March 4, 2013 at 5:07 am
    Oh Jonathan — how can anyone objective person take you seriously when you refuse to acknowledge the ad homina seething through your respective descriptors of Tim, Rene and me.

  17. I have a law degree, but I have not practiced law for a living for many years and my knowledge of copyright law is pre-internet.

    It seems that Joel is now claiming that Neil’s use was improper even under the broader Creative Commons License. I doubt that, but I cannot say for sure. In any case, that would not justify his failure to inform WP of what copyright claim he had posted on his blog and it would not justify changing it after the fact.

  18. Ian

    Thanks Vinny – I’ve been in situations before where I’ve just kept digging, kept up with the post-hoc rationalisations. Sometimes it takes a while to realise that you may have just-about argued away your guilt on some minor technicality, but you also argued away your credibility and the moral high ground in the process. I’m quite sure that if you went through anyone’s use of licensed material with a fine enough comb, you’d find some minor breach somewhere. I know big media companies I’ve worked for are reluctant to use open-source or CC content, because of the prospect of getting some astronomical claim over some trivial breach somewhere. But still.

    I’ve been in the must-save-face-at-all-costs panic, so I understand the temptation. Which is why I suggested on James’s blog that perhaps someone who knows him well should call him and say “look Joel, stop digging, take it on the chin and put it right.”

    But hey, we’re all experts on the internet, so who am I to say?

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  20. Ian,

    I won’t claim that I am particularly good about admitting when I’m wrong, but I’m a great believer in shutting up in the hopes that others will forget about it more quickly.

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  22. Thanx for exposing Joel. I personally have enjoyed all my encounters with Neil and think of him as have a huge array of skills.

  23. Pingback: Vridar » Looking for Vridar Blog Posts

  24. As an American, I can’t help by see “sceptical” and hear “septical” in my head. But, really, I don’t care much what labels people put on me.

  25. Not “help by see,” but “help but see.” Clearly, I need more sleep.

  26. Ian

    Tim, I don’t understand your last sentence “I don’t much care what labels people put on me” – I mean, I understand the sentence, and if you’re just sharing, then share away, but it sounds like you are responding to a point someone made, but I can’t see which one.

  27. I may have another piece of evidence against Watts, this time his screenshot showing the email he allegedly sent to Neil.

    Please bear with me while I make a hypothetical argument. How would I go about fabricating a sent email a day earlier and taking a screenshot of it — if I were so inclined? First, I would set my system clock backward one day or so. Then I would first write a normal email. Instead of sending it, I would save it to Drafts. Then, I would go into my Drafts box, and manually move the email to my Sent folder. Once that was done, I could take a screenshot, and it would show a “sent” email with yesterday’s date. I just tried this on my own Mac, and it works.

    The only problem is that if I forgot to set my clock back to the actual date, the wrong date would be visible in the system menu at the top-right corner of the screen.

    Look at Watts’s screenshot:

    His system clock says June 26, but he has emails in his screenshot dated to June 27, one day in the future. I can think of no other explanation, other than that he has changed the system clock and forgotten to change it back.

    If I have made an error in my reasoning, please point it out.

  28. One other thing: His system clock shows the same date and time as the “sent” email. In other words, he took the screenshot within one minute of drafting that email.

    It seems highly unlikely that Watts immediately goes to his Sent box and takes screenshots of all important emails within one minute of sending them.

    Furthermore, the next screenshot Watts posts in his explanation of what happened ( shows the “correct” date of June 28, when all the screenshots (including the “sent” email) were most likely taken.

  29. Ian

    Paul, Thanks for this.

    I’ve looked at the images (and downloaded them for reference, in case they disappear), and you’re right: he’s doing something strange with the date. Notice that on the screenshot in question, the menu bar is showing that the current app is System Preferences (where you set the date and time on a mac) and in the bottom right on the dock, there is the mimimized icon of a System Preferences pane which, if you zoom in, has two white patches, side by side, and a dark horizontal line underneath. This matches only the date-time picker panel (I’ve checked all 29 panels). So I think it almost certain that Joel took this screenshot immediately after minimizing the Date-Time Picker window after changing the date and time.

    The fact that the email is exactly at the current time, and there’s a bunch of emails in the future I think is pretty damning.

    Its sickening, to be honest, I thought we were dealing with a thin skin taking offense. We’re now into faking evidence. It is depressing. I’ll add another post. It is worth documenting, I guess. I wonder if he’ll issue a DMCA takedown on this blog for using his image.

  30. Pingback: Joel Watts, and Dubious Evidence | Irreducible Complexity

  31. Ian, my comment about not caring about what labels put on me had to do with the passing comment above about my being a “sceptical blogger.” There are worse things to be called.

  32. Ian

    Gotya Tim, thanks.

  33. Joel Watts is explaining that it has all been caused by a glitch for Outlook for Mac when connected to Microsoft Exchange Server.

    That’s one hell of a Microsoft glitch.

    First it changes the system time on a Mac.

    And then it messes up Gmail.

    Even when you are not connected to the Internet – as Watts wasn’t.

    This is probably the most far reaching glitch in history.

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