Whine Journalism and how to bring the splashback

You Are What You Drink

You Are What You Drink

“I assumed they were already in the public domain on other wine review sites and liquor store sites.”

So says Canada’s #1 wine writer, Natalie MacLean, in a statement as disturbing as it is wrong-headed. It seems that, despite seeking legal advice (where, in a bar after closing time?), MacLean is under the bizarre notion that just because copyrighted work is posted to the internet, it is thereby stripped of copyright.

Allow me to disabuse her, and everyone, of this notion once and for all.

All original work published online, whether paid for or not, from CNN.com to the humblest Tumblr, is copyright the creator, as of the moment of publication, automatically and by law.

MacLean, as you can see here, has been copiously copy/pasting reviews written by other writers into her blog and website. Previous to this going nuclear in the media towards the end of last month, the posts said “By Natalie MacLean” with only the initials of the original writer, and no link to where the reviews had first appeared. And, apparently, no permission requests whatsoever.

As PalatePress says:

Ms. MacLean’s use of others’ work clearly fails the Fair Use test because she publishes entire reviews, they are appropriated for commercial purposes and her use is not for any of the legally permitted reasons.

There is a difference between an attributed quote, which you can see here or right above this sentence, and is protected by fair use law, and an outright theft. In her defence MacLean claims that she always included the initials of the original writer…which is a bit “other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln” of her.

I’m a writer. I write for a living. That still leaves me time for several hobbies, one of which is seeking out people who have stolen my writing and posted it elsewhere without permission, attributed or not, and having their websites taken offline with no warning. And now, in case any of you also write and value your own talent and original expressions (paid or unpaid), I am going to teach you how to do it too. I wish we didn’t live in a world where you had to have these skills, but selah, we do.

  1. periodically, take the first sentence of each of your recent posts and put them in Google, in quotation marks. In the case of this post, I’d put “So says Canada’s #1 wine writer, Natalie MacLean, in a statement as disturbing as it is wrong-headed.” in the Google box. See if it brings up any posts which you, yourself, didn’t make.
  2. if so, read the posts and see if you think it’s fair use (ie they took a snippet of your post and directed the reader to your post via a link to get the rest of the info OR they then went on to discuss the point you made. Either way, a direct link to your site is indeed necessary). If it is, fine.
  3. if, instead, they have NO original content on their post at all, but instead either pretend they wrote it themselves or link to you in the (hopefully vain) hope that you’ll think that a link from an internet thief is somehow acceptable, you have my permission and encouragement to go Full Metal Raincoaster on them. We call these people sploggers, spam bloggers, when we don’t call them something worse, and wreaking vengeance upon them is easier and more polite than you think: why, even Canadians can master this!
  4. if you’re really nice, or you think there has been a simple mistake, search the website for contact details for the blogger/admin and if you don’t find any, leave a comment on the post explaining that it is your content and you are asserting your copyright, and would like it removed. If you can’t find any contact details or leave a comment, well, that’s telling, isn’t it?
  5. determine where the website is hosted. WhoIsHostingThis is the easiest tool to use, although there are plenty of others.
  6. find contact information for the web host, which is almost always easily available online (or nobody could contact them to get hosting, now could they?). If they have an Abuse email, use that. If they have a DMCA or Copyright email, use that. Here is what you email them:
  7. send a polite email explaining the situation simply. I guarantee, they get a dozen of these a day, so don’t waste their time. Say “My post HERE (link) dated X has been copy/pasted after publication to a site hosted by you HERE (other link) dated Y and I hereby assert my copyright and request to have the infringing material taken down.” If you are as mean as me, you’ll have looked around the site and may add “I believe a great deal of their content has been similarly stolen, which I am certain is against your terms of service, FYI.” Of course it’s against their terms of service: it’s against the law!
  8. if you really want to put the cherry in the Manhattan, add an actual DMCA Takedown Notice. You don’t need a lawyer for this, nor does it take more than five minutes, but it works Every! Single! Time! Poof: instant website outage! This includes some general guidelines if you feel like writing it yourself, and this is the template I myself use because I am lazy and do these a lot. Once you do one of these, there will be no stopping you.

Web hosts are legally obliged to take offline copyright-infringing content, and they don’t really give a rat’s ass how “important” the blogger is in his/her niche. If they don’t act on a DMCA notice, they risk losing their entire business, and they are not going to take that chance. That’s why this is the heavy-handed, but more productive, way of dealing with copyright infringement. It’s rare that anyone with a blog is stupid or ignorant enough to think they’re really allowed to do this, so asking them is often a lesson in fruitlessness. When their web host removes their entire site from the internet, that teaches them a lesson they won’t forget.

Now, go forth. Go forth and Google, and I raise a toast to your splogger-hunting success!

EDITED TO ADD: if you’re super-extra nasty like I am, go to the stealing site, click on their ads, not the ad itself, but the part that says “Ads by Google” or “Federated Media” or whatever, and report them there. Every ad network has a way to report sploggers, and when they confirm what you say, they will pull all their ads and probably NEVER let that person have another ad account. Hit them where they live, people!

Hat tip to the ever-vigilant Marquis Wine Cellar on Twitter

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25 thoughts on “Whine Journalism and how to bring the splashback

  1. Brilliant essay Loraine. I didn’t know any of this and it’s relaly some powerful info. I do find my art work reproduced but haven’t found my writing or poetry. I’m going to share it with the members of my writing group. 🙂

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  2. Great article. Thank you. Since I started my website in 1998 I have had many TN’s, articles and photos ripped off. I now try to remember to watermark every photo I post to my blog or Twitter, not that that seems to make much difference to people who seem to think everything on the Internet is in the public domain. As for words, well your advice on googling is works for finding your own original work that has been copied. I particulary like the advice in G, only those who copy seldom reply to emails, and will try H next time if all else fails.

    Happy New Year!

    Sue Courtney, Auckland, NZ

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  3. You’ve hit on the thing I find most appalling in this whole mess: that a “professional” writer would make such an inane assumption is utterly incomprehensible. It’s incredible, in the sense of “not credible”. I have written on exactly this aspect here http://www.ambitonline.com/nextrelease/2012/12/wine-writers-behaving-badly-the-natalie-maclean-story/.

    However your post raises two things. The first is a nitpick: a link back on attribution is not *required*, it is a courtesy that should be followed. What is required is sufficient information to identify the source. So I could say “‘where, in a bar’ Manolo, manolofood.com” with no link and be fine. This is in part because a direct link to a physical book isn’t exactly possible. [As an aside, it’s not easy to figure out specifically who I would attribute just by reading this page, you might want to improve that.]

    The second is more important: the DCMA is US legislation. If the hosting company isn’t based in the US or controlled by an American company, a DCMA takedown request is as useful as a wet sheet of paper towel. Since all parties in this matter are Canadian, that avenue is not available. However we’ve recently updated our copyright laws, and I suspect a similar mechanism [that is less subject to abuse] is or will soon be in place. In the mean time MacLean is resorting to vague, toothless innuendo of libel proceedings, seemingly based on advice from the same source she uses for copyright law.

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  4. Quick tip for image search: TinEye.com isn’t a Google property, its a Canadian company [disclosure: run by good friends of mine]. Amazing tool for locating illegal use of images. It’s also great at validating social media profile pictures — the number of times that suspicious account has an image purloined from a stock photo site is quite large.

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  5. Alan, thanks for your comments. Technically you’re correct, of course, about the link not being required but certainly an expected courtesy. Your example also highlights why it is a good self-defensive policy: this post was not written by the Manolo. If you had linked to it, the attribution would have been by definition flawless; by skipping the link and typing it out, you introduced human fallibility into the attribution process.

    And as to the second: a DMCA is legally compelling only in the US, it’s true, but it has never failed me when sent to a Canadian company. Actually, we don’t know where MacLean is hosted, do we? If she’d taken my content, I’d certainly have an interest in finding out.

    And yes, we are 100% in agreement on the quality of the legal advice she has allegedly received.

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  6. Interesting – like the old Shakespeare sources argument, or the Rolling Stones and the great Bluesmen,-is it the context or the new slant given on source material or the accreditation of source. None amongst us or what we say is that important, but acknowledgement is polite, and pure plagiarism like this eventually demeans the plagiarist, as will happen in this case. Think, though, your tingeing-on racist anti-Canadian humour attempt is surely unnecessary and disappointing- and that is from a Brit!

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  7. This gave me a serious guffaw, the likes of which I’ve not uttered for quite some time! Also, I scared the cats. Again.

    Thanks for putting this all together. You are a gem.

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  8. matteo, thanks! I commented on your site (and misspelled “thieves” but oh well).

    adrian, please do not try to take action on behalf of Canadians. As a Canadian, I can tell you that we don’t like it. Just ask the Yanks how that Manifest Destiny thing worked out for them.

    Anita! Great to see you again! Glad you liked it.

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  9. Are you usually drunk when you write these posts? Adrian says nowhere that he’s going to “take action” on behalf of Canadians. It’s not even implied.

    Add to that the fact that he’s british and, in face, the British “taking action” on behalf of Canadians is the only reason we *are* Canadian and the whole thing’s a bit of a mystery. The British defended the Dominion’s land, negotiated with the Americans after a victory which was limp at best, wrote the British North America Act (BNA) and then–when we asked nicely, without any serious threat of secession at all–gave us the BNA as the basis for our very own Constitution and made us sovereign.

    Mercifully, the British have taken action on our part. Were it not for them, we’d all be North United Statesians.

    Smoke less week. Drink less alcohol. Be a bit less Vancouver.

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  10. Sometimes taking a sentence that is not the lead is better – I have found a few sites that change the lead sentence or two – blogger is great for letting sites back on after they change the lead but leave the later content stolen.

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  11. To search for content thieves I use sentences that are found in the body of the content like captnmike suggests and I use copyscape too. Also as a paralegal none of this is news to me and when it comes to finding any of my content on any site with advertising on it I have been clicking the ad links and reporting them to their advertisers for years. I agree that it’s been a very effective strategy for getting instant attention, especially when when the ads are Google Ads.

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  12. Great post!

    Quite a few folks could have a field day with this splogger: http://robinwestenra.blogspot.com

    Although he does respond, he can’t help to add a jab: ” In honour of his wishes I have removed his blog material. Presumably, that means that he places more worth on his own ‘intellectual property’ than on ensuring this important information is distributed so that the maximum number of people are informed.”

    (May 14, 2015 @ http://robinwestenra.blogspot.com/2015/05/further-coverage-of-chernobyl-fires.html?showComment=1431623328733#c2197639986108344054 )

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  13. Uncanny timing, as I finally pulled off my first youtube takedown last week.

    The “news” agency involved hosts all their multimedia on youtube and I’ve dealing with them for years. I hit them, it got their attention in a “what’s your problem” sort of way. I explained a few things to them, and highlight the fact that this wasn’t the first time that I’d explained a few things to them.

    The takedown happened, and the reply was whatever dude, good luck to you in the future. Hmm, just went through their site and found another 9 targets. Now my attitude is like, whatever dude, good luck to you on vimeo.

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