Last week, Bellingham-based newspaper Cascadia Weekly was busted taking film reviews from other outlets and publishing without permission. Outlets they stole from include IndieWire, the Minnesota Star Tribune, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, the Wrap, the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Star, and Denver's Westword. And they did it for over a decade.
It's a clear act of copyright violation, made even more shocking by the fact that they got away with it for as long as they did. Writers tend to have Google Alerts for their own names, which is exactly how Kate Erbland, a deputy editor at IndieWire, discovered that the paper had published multiple reviews without her knowledge or her permission.
This, as you can imagine, caused quite a storm in film reviewer circles, and in this week's edition, Cascadia Weekly publisher Tim Johnson copped to it. His apology reads, in whole:
Cascadia Weekly has published feature film reviews without permission of their authors. The responsibility for this rests with me, the publisher, and I apologize and am available to those authors for cure.
All feature reviews were bylined and sourced, and our intent was never to deprive or defraud these authors of credit for their work. Cascadia Weekly received no revenue or remit from these reviews, which were offered as service to readers. These were licensed products for which we did not hold a license. Cascadia Weekly publishes a number of syndicated features, and—were such services readily available for the indie film industry—we would leap at the opportunity to secure available syndication for feature film reviews. If licensing services are available for the small independent press, we do not know of them.
Our sin was promotion; and in particular promotion of the many fine, small-distribution independent films of limited circulation that arrive each month at our arthouse theaters, and that deserve attention in our community.
Perhaps no single area of arts-&-entertainment publishing has witnessed more change over the past several years than that of new film releases. Their distribution has increasingly consolidated and has tended to focus on major releases. Screening opportunities have narrowed, and particularly so in small communities like Bellingham. Our advance deadline of Tuesday additionally constricts our capacity to secure permissions for feature reviews for limited distribution films. Even our ability to present screen times is constricted, as that information is now seldom released by the major theater chain until after our press deadline.
None of this excuses our actions, but is submitted to explain our motives.
The simple truth is, rather than surrender to the evident realities of distribution and provide little information at all on these excellent films, we chose to publish feature reviews without securing permission from their authors. We were wrong to do so.
Over time, we grew indiscriminate in sources and careless in purpose. On several occasions, we published feature reviews for a major motion picture release without license or permission, which violated any original purpose—however misguided—to point reader attention to smaller release films. Wrong became routine. Of all our failures, this last point is our most egregious.
To authors and their representatives who request or demand remedy, we will of course respond promptly and appropriately to each request.
Regarding content that has been removed from our archives: This is not a cover-up. This is part of the requested remedy.
For the present, and until licensing issues are resolved, we will no longer publish feature film reviews. This is as much an acknowledgment of the realities described above as it is our reduced page counts at a very challenging moment for the newspaper publishing industry. Film shorts, which are original to Cascadia Weekly and provided by staff, will continue to appear in our publication.
Again, my apologies to all we have failed.
I suppose that counts as an apology (he did use the term more than once), but Erbland is not impressed.
"While I'm pleased Tim Johnson responded to the accusations with an initial statement of guilt, I find the rest of the statement to be ludicrous and filled with both thin explanations and baldfaced lies," Erbland says. "Essentially, the statement boils down to 'We didn't know this was wrong, but we also totally knew this was wrong.'"
While Cascadia Weekly did give the authors of the work they stole bylines, as Erbland noted, they failed to note the originating publication, which, if they were actually trying some kind of DIY syndication, would have been a key thing to include.
"Acting as if this was all in service to smaller, indie films is absurd on its face, as they've spent years also ripping off reviews for far bigger fare," Erbland continued. This includes Erbland's recent review of Hustlers (not exactly an indie film) and a 2017 review of The Last Jedi that they actually used for a cover story.
"Saying that they made no profit on the reviews is all a bizarre statement, as if their ad revenue for their publication is somehow not applicable to stolen material," Erbland continued.
She's got a point. When asked later via e-mail about this part of his statement ("Cascadia Weekly received no revenue or remit from these reviews, which were offered as service to readers"), Johnson clarified: "We received no ad money as direct and traceable consequence of running film reviews. Regal Cinemas has no interest in advertising with us, and they own all the major theater chains in our area." Of course, even if they weren't selling ads directly based on stolen reviews, they did run ads on the pages (both online and in print) where the reviews they stole were published.
Johnson also told me that, to his knowledge, it was just film reviews they stole and no other content. As for legal recourse, he said they've been issued cease-and-desist letters, which they have complied with. If, however, someone does decide to sue, that could very well mean the end of Bellingham's alt-weekly: Under copyright law, violations could cost the paper between $750 and $150,000 each.