Let me assure the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that I'm not being figurative. I am being 100% literal, though it is tempting to restate the headline in hiphop vernacular.
Plagiarism has become a looser concept. A couple years ago I wrote a widely read blog post and discovered some others liked it so much they took my name off of it and republished it as their own work. I'm still pissed off. But when I speak to Writing for the Internet students (something I do every semester), I am always interested that current undergrads -- accustomed to retweeting and reposting -- don't understand why a writer would think he owns an original thought, expression or work.
* (A pianist, Joyce Hatto, issued CDs recorded by other artists as her own. That's worse.)
What MacLean has done goes far beyond retweeting. She has taken without permission the copyrighted work of other writers, presented it without bylines -- which means almost all readers will think it is her own -- and charged readers a fee for it. That's not retweeting: that's theft.
I won't repeat the Palate Press story that broke the news; it's here. Congratulations to Palate Press for doing the work on this. I'm proud to write a column for the site. (Nobody's going to read this month's column because it was published the same day as the MacLean news, but it's a good tale with kings, crusades, the devil, and nearly extinct wine grapes: check it out here.)
After publishing the MacLean-as-plagiarist story, Palate Press also reported that MacLean has asked wineries to pay to have their wines reviewed. That's a different issue which I won't comment on at length, but you should read that story too. Say what you want about pay-to-play for reviews, at least it's not theft, as wineries have a choice on whether to participate. The writers mentioned in the initial Palate Press story did not.
I got an email from a reader, Kent Benson, whose work I recently published on this blog. (You can see here how I think writers should be credited for contributing.)
Here's what Kent said about his experience with Natalie MacLean:
When her latest book was still in manuscript form, she contacted me and asked me if I would fact check it for her. She offered me no money, only an acknowledgement. As an aspiring wine writer, I thought, “What the heck. It can’t hurt to get a mention in a widely read wine book.” So I took on the project. I put in about 100 hours correcting errors (there were many) and making suggestions for more accurate statements.Kent is a libertarian and might say the mistake was his in offering the work for free, though the anecdote is revealing of MacLean's character. He doesn't seem to have much legal ground to stand on in asking for some signed books, though I wonder if Canada's minimum wage laws might apply. (Any lawyers reading this?)
After turning in dozens of pages of notes, I asked her if I could get some signed copies of the book when it was published, to hand out as prizes to students in my wine classes. She said, “Absolutely.” I thought it went without saying that I expected the books to be gratis, for all the work I had done.
When the book was published I asked her how many books I could get. She replied by saying, “As many as you are willing to buy.” I couldn’t believe my eyes! After all the work I had done, she couldn’t even part with a few books, which wouldn’t have cost her a dime in the way of cash flow. Her ingratitude was stunning.
But Jamie Goode, James Halliday, Jancis Robinson and a who's who of other wine writers, along with the publications Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and the International Wine Cellar, have a legitimate right to receive money that MacLean made from selling access to her site.
Natalie MacLean should pay. I don't know if the writers mentioned in the Palate Press story want to get together, hire a Canadian lawyer and sue her. Maybe they should. It's hard to believe, reading Benson's story, that she'll do the right thing without any outside influence. The Liquor Control Board of Ontario pays her for various services. Perhaps it could pressure her.
Here's what the right thing is: She should allow a public accounting of all the money she's made from subscriptions to her website. And she should divide it -- all of it, 100% -- among the writers whose work she stole.
That might turn out to be a lot less money than she would lose in a lawsuit, and would certainly be a lot cheaper for her than hiring a lawyer.
For the aggrieved writers, it would feel right: they wouldn't get large checks, but they would know that she hasn't profited from their work.
Natalie MacLean should pay. I hope she does so without the need to go to court.