A Plagiarist, Foiled
Today I learned what it truly means when something goes viral.
My movie reviews are protected by a service called Copyscape, which monitors plagiarism. Despite the large banner at the top of each review that reads Protected by Copyscape – Do Not Copy, people occasionally lift my words. (Plagiarists are apparently none too observant.) A Copyscape notification let me know that a woman named Michele Schalin, who writes for a website called The Movie Junkies, had pilfered part of my review of The Hunger Games. My usual response in a case like this is to email the offender and respectfully ask that they remove my copyrighted material from their website. Usually that works. I sent Ms. Schalin just such an email. Then I decided to scan her site a little more closely. I found that sections of my reviews of 21 Jump Street, The Descendants, Safe House, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were also incorporated into her own “reviews.” My review of Bridesmaids was printed almost entirely intact.
It was then that I logged onto Twitter and wrote: “Hey @themoviejunkies: How come I keep finding examples of my work plagiarized on your website?” In addition to my own work being cribbed, I also found that almost every “review” Ms. Schalin had “written” was stolen from somewhere. I notified several of my colleagues – including MaryAnn Johanson, William Goss, and Eric Snider – that they, too, were victims of theft. They began tweeting about the situation as well. In the meantime, our tweets were being re-tweeted and commented upon by others. Within an hour, multiple people were publicly calling out Ms. Schalin and demanding an explanation. It was clear that once she logged on for the day, a deluge of bad PR would be waiting for her.
The tweet-rage began to grow. People passed the tweets along to their own followers. I had my @ replies (i.e. messages from other Twitter users) open, and they were rolling in faster than I could keep up with them. I’d get them in groups of 3 or 4; no sooner would a read a batch than another would appear. There were suggestions on dealing with plagiarists, and reporting them to their host servers. There were cries for me to call an attorney. Some were simply expressions of support for me and/or outrage toward her. My email inbox began filling up too. This thing had touched a nerve.
A short time later, I went back to take screencaps of the work plagiarized on The Movie Junkies website. I noticed that Schalin had altered her Hunger Games “review.” She’d obviously received my initial message. However, she merely reworded what I wrote. The sentiment was still exactly the same. In my review, I wrote: “The film doesn’t shy away from the underlying themes in Collins’ novel: that young people have untapped potential for violence; that “reality” TV shows require manufactured drama; that death and destruction are marketable entertainment commodities.” Schalin had changed it on her page to read: “The basic themes of the stories are still there; anyone, including teens, have the potential for violence in the right situation and our popular reality shows are not all “reality” at all, there is always some drama added for higher ratings.” No longer a direct lift, but still plagiarism. And it was clear that she was panicking.
Then it got really interesting. The flood of tweets had been noticed by two separate bloggers, both of whom wrote detailed articles about the situation (which we shall now refer to as Junkie-gate). Those postings put Michele Schalin’s actions into an even brighter spotlight. Readers were scanning her website and posting more examples of plagiarism onto the blogs. They were logging onto the Movie Junkies website and leaving comments condemning her for theft of intellectual property. The Movie Junkies Facebook page was being plastered with similar comments. Ms. Schalin was apparently online while all this was taking place, because those comments would not-so-mysteriously disappear moments later. The undeterred readers would simply post them again.
In an apparent effort to cover her own ass make amends, Ms. Schalin sent me an email “apology.” Here is the text of that message:
I am very sorry. It seems some of my views that I passed onto to one of my staff to post on the site have used other sources that should not have been included. I should have looked more carefully and we do so in the future. I apologize for this error.
Of course, I knew immediately it was bullshit, and not just because that second sentence is utterly incoherent. For starters, stealing someone else’s work isn’t an “error.” Second, a staff? Really?! If Ms. Schalin is to be believed, she expressed her views on these movies to a staff person, who then went out and stole somebody else’s words for her. I wasn’t buying it, and I told her so, politely but firmly. I added that rewording my thoughts was still plagiarism. She replied again, promising to take down anything I found on her website. I’ve been told by colleagues that same lame-ass apology was issued to them as well.
Meanwhile, the tweets and Facebook postings continued to come in fast and furious, over six hours later.
As of 6:30 PM, The Movie Junkies was a shell of its former self. The vast majority of its reviews had been taken offline. Only a few remained – including the reworded Hunger Games, 21 Jump Street, and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo “reviews.” The Movie Junkies website had comments disallowed, as had their Facebook page. Ms. Schalin was obviously doing everything possible to salvage whatever was left of her damaged reputation.
Sadly, this was not a rare occurrence. I get plagiarized at least 3-4 times per year. (The most recent episode before Junkie-gate was a mere two weeks ago.) I don’t think this happens because I’m a brilliant, super-amazing writer. No, I think it happens because I’m an easy target. There are lots of critics like me online. We run our sites and have our faithful readers, yet we’re not “names.” It’s tough to steal from, say, Roger Ebert, because millions of people read his reviews and you’d get busted pretty quickly. But steal from Mike McGranaghan and…well, that’s a whole other deal. My website, The Aisle Seat, is small and independently run. I have no corporate backers. I’m not owned by a media conglomerate. Nothing against sites that are (many of them are great and employ extremely talented critics), but I intentionally chose to be “indie” because it gives me complete control over the form and content of my own work. By the same token, I know that I will never have the same volume of traffic as those bigger sites. I don’t get half a million hits per day, or even per year. Sadly, this makes it easy for a plagiarist to crib from me, and from other critics just like me. They figure that no one will notice. So thank goodness for services like Copyscape which help protect us little guys from people like Michele Schalin, who would deem to take our words and our ideas, then claim them as their own.
The events of Junkie-gate moved so quickly that my head felt like it was spinning. Good critics found their work stolen – and then banded together to make the internet take notice. How wonderful that we look out for one another. As for Michele Schalin, her desire to take a short-cut caused her to be publicly humiliated. I don’t feel sorry for her. She brought it all on herself.
Update (3/29/12): As of 9:00 AM, the Movie Junkies website is completely offline. A message on their homepage says the site is “undergoing scheduled maintenance.” Apparently, their Facebook page is too, as it’s also gone.
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