Help Yourself to a Review!

Originally published in August 2014

Here’s a great example of the nonsense online writers have to deal with.

I utilize a service called Copyscape that lets me check for plagiarism of my reviews. During a routine check over the weekend, I discovered that my review of Begin Again had been republished in its entirety on the website of a Canadian arthouse movie theater (which I will not name). At the end of the review, there was an attribution: AISLE SEAT. Not my name, just the name of my website, with no link back to it.

I emailed the management of the theater, alerting them that this had been done without my permission, and without any sort of compensation to me. What they did was not plagiarism, but it most definitely was a violation of my copyright, which I explained. My email ended with several options: they could license the review from me for a nominal fee, in which case I would allow them to use it for as long as they pleased, or they could simply remove it altogether.

Today, I got a reply from someone associated with the theater. He told me that my review had been completely taken down from their website. He then added: “Generally folks who write reviews don’t mind when we share them, as that’s why they publish them online.” The message ended by stating that the theater makes money “by getting folks to come in and watch movies” and “a good review can help us do that.”

As you can perhaps imagine, I was flabbergasted by this reply. I most certainly do not publish reviews online so that anybody who wants to can share them. I post them because this is how I earn a living. There are ads on every review I publish. When someone clicks one of those ads, I make money. This puts cash into my bank account, while still allowing people to read my reviews for free. If the theater had posted a review from one of my other outlets – where I’m paid a set amount per review – it wouldn’t have mattered. But when you publish a review from The Aisle Seat elsewhere, you’re literally removing my chance to make money off my writing, because whoever reads it isn’t going to be able to click one of those ads.

I responded again to the theater representative, saying: “Actually, professional critics post online to earn a living. Republishing someone’s review is similar to someone torrenting a film rather than paying to see it in your theater.” And this is true. If the unnamed Canadian theater is showing Begin Again, but I choose to watch the film illegally online rather than paying to see it in their cinema, I’m getting the value of the thing without compensating anyone. Which is exactly what they did when they pilfered my review. They got its value, without giving me anything.

As a sidenote, the theater could have avoided this issue altogether by reprinting a paragraph, then linking to my original review. Most writers, myself included, consider this perfectly acceptable.

There was one more message from the theater rep, and this will royally piss off you other writers who are reading this. He said: “Generally, folks don’t mind exposure in this situation.” Ah, exposure – that buzzword that has come to mean “you should work for free.” Entertainment Weekly recently opened up a section of their website where authors can pen articles for them. They don’t pay for the work, but hey, you get “exposure.” The Huffington Post is infamous for this practice, as well.

I’ll be blunt: exposure sucks. Exposure doesn’t put food in my mouth. It doesn’t pay my mortgage or my bills. It doesn’t put clothes on my child’s back. Exposure + money is great. Exposure by itself is worthless. I’d rather have the cash.

One of the perils of online writing is that, like this theater, people think that everything they see is up for grabs. If it’s on the internet, it must be free! This could not be further from the truth. Almost everything originating from a professional outlet that you read on the internet, even if it is the world’s most inane tweet from US Magazine, was written by someone who relies on getting paid for their work. Simply cutting-and-pasting that work can harm them financially. Passing it off as “exposure” is just the insult on top of the injury.

The solution is to fight back. Was I too harsh in demanding that a small-ish cinema in another country take down my work? I don’t think so. That Begin Again review doesn’t belong to them, and they have no right to determine what is done with it. That review belongs to me, and about four hours of work went into its creation: two hours to see the film, and two more to write about it. We writers have to protect our stuff at all costs. It’s what we have, and if abused, we may find ourselves in the unfortunate position of not being able to create any more like it.


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