Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Natalie MacLean should pay

Natalie MacLean has committed the most egregious content theft in writing that I have ever heard of -- in fact, the second* most egregious content theft of any kind I've ever heard of. And MacLean, Canada's best-known wine critic, should pay.

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.

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.
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?)

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. Thanks for posting this.

    I think public humiliation and customer transparency should be added to 'pay'.

    My take on this is simple and philosophical.

    There are rights and freedoms and there are laws to protect them. Laws evolve and change as they fall out of whack with society.

    Some things are illegal and some are despicable. Sometimes they intersect.

    Patent trolls are despicable but not illegal. Execs taking huge bonuses while their stock crashes the same.

    Scraping the web for content, copyrighted or not, and building that into a paid for copyrighted service with no attempt at attribution may be legal or not. But if that is indeed what is being done it is despicable.

    Moreso if someone like an author of one of the purloined pieces subscribed to the service, copied it in its entirety and then republished it, they would most likely be legally liable.

    Thanks again.

  2. Just ranting here, but I've never understood what drives people to simply rip off other writers like this. It could be simple laziness. Someone is so established and entitled that they don't think they should have to do any of their own work.

    I remember getting an email from her about eight years ago. She was asking me for restaurants in the Bay Area, or something similar. I don't remember, but I remember thinking this person was already established, so why was she asking me do to *her* work? It was really strange.

    Again, I can't imagine people being so full of themselves to where they think they can simply rip off other people's writings with no credit. It must be some narcissistic personality disorder, or something.

  3. Great post, Blake. Being one of Natalie's many victims, and just letting it happen for years (though our professional wine writers association has tried and tried to get Natalie to remove our unattributed work from her site), you begin to develop an attitude toward intellectual property theft in the wine writing world. I have seen my reviews appear in various forms in various publications online and otherwise. You just give up after while and take what little solace there is in knowing you had it first. As a freelance writer, and one lonely person with no staff, it is not practical to spend my time chasing down people who take my stuff without permission. It's like it's OK now because it's so widespread. It gets compounded by the fact that you grant one person permission to reprint your work (with whatever deal you cut either for money or link backs) and everyone thinks that's their cue to help themselves. That's what Natalie does. She sees it somewhere and just takes it and then blames the secondary source. But as bad as taking what isn't yours is, it's the pay-for-review side of this story that is most damaging to all of us. And it will continue to be damaging, especially here in Canada, as many will feel all wine reviews are tainted by the policies of one reviewer. It is a very sad state of affairs for Canadian journalism and the ethics of everyone who writes about wine will be questioned long after this wave of outrage dies down.

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  5. Rick: I think it's important for people to realize that the pay-for-review scheme is Natalie's, and I will give people credit for being able to make that distinction between her and other critics. It's incumbent on the rest of us to make sure if pay-for-play is mentioned, we say, "That was Natalie MacLean. That was her business model."

    Now if a second major critic is exposed as taking pay for reviews, then we're all screwed. Though if somebody has the evidence, it's time to come forward.

  6. We know that this kind of theivery goes on all the time, but it has never been this blatant.

    It is the kind of malicious, unethical activity that should earn NatMac a place in the wine world's version of being sent to Coventry.

    Her Pay For Play antics are made equally unethical by the way they have been undertaken. I am not fond of the New Zealand model in which a winery pays a fee for each wine submitted, but this is worse because NatMac has sought payment for "good reviews" ready to roll.

    It is bad enough that she has brought disgrace down on her own head. Sadly, some this will fall on heads of all wine critics.

    This kind of public castigation is a good first step. She needs to be stopped legally, and then she needs to be sent to Coventry.

  7. OK, Charlie, you got me: Coventry? Why, is the food there that bad? Don't they have takeout curry?

  8. I looked at the website years ago to see if it had any value to me, no it doesn’t. Purple Pages is worth paying for.
    Here is where she is getting the reviews from this magazine, or probably the website “VINTAGES is the fine wine and premium spirits business unit of the LCBO” from vintages website Dec 18 2012 ;) note LCBO is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Canada’s largest liquor monopoly.

    If you wander into the website you will see all the sets of abbreviations she is using are borrowed from the Government of Ontario taxpayers!!!!!

  9. God Bless The Internet! These scandals have really juiced up the industry. Can we call this NatGate, to go along with CampoGate, MillerGate, SnoothGate, BrunelloGate. I must be missing some.

    Remember the good old days when Parker & Jancis got into it about 2003 Chateau Pavie tasting like 100pt nectar or young port.

    I look forward to the next wineGate.

  10. Blake--

    Being "Sent to Coventry" is an English colloquialism for being severely ostracized, then treated as if the person did not exist.

    It is meant as showing disrespect of the highest order.

  11. I think something is really amiss here and it's even bigger than this situation.

    If you go to her site you will see all of her awards at the bottom of the home page.

    She's a 4 time James Beard award winner! Doesn't anyone take any time to check people out before they offer someone one of the industry's top honors?

    It seems that if she's taken other people's reviews as her own thousands of times then probably other areas of her site are 'poached' too. After all, if she lives in Canada, where does she get the content for CA liquors stores best wines? Or the GPS for liquor stores?

    She shouldn't get the opportunity to correct her mistake, she should quietly withdraw from the world of wine so that she doesn't leave a stain on the industry.

  12. Great follow-up to the Palate Press pieces. I've always had a strange feeling about Natalie MacLean, and the more stories I hear about her, the more validated I feel. I really can't believe that she didn't even give her copyeditor a couple of free copies of the book. That's absurd.

  13. Interesting to hear about this, and good breakdown of the issues here! I tested a few recipes for one of her books, and I'll just say I'm not shocked to learn of this.