Also incorporating: The Story So Far.
Turns out that this one just keeps on running.
Today's thrilling developments include WoSblog's new best friend Olin Coles, Executive Editor of "independent" "reviews" site Benchmark Reviews, being exposed for some fraudulent DMCA claims and for yet more instances of lying to to his innocent, trusting readership. Read on!
But first, let's quickly recap the entire story for those joining us late who don't want to read through the thousands of words of all five previous instalments. (If you HAVE been following it, skip to the part below the dotted line.)
1. Olin Coles, Executive Editor of "independent" reviews site Benchmark Reviews, published a review of the $1200 Herman Miller Embody office chair, which was presented as being solely his own work.
2. Stefan Holmes, a reader of the WoS Forum found the review suspicious, and posted a comment on the Benchmark Reviews forum, expressing the opinion that the "review" sounded more like a Herman Miller press release.
3. Olin Coles deleted the comment, and emailed Stefan personally in a hurt tone, stating that "The Embody chair was paid for out of my own pocket, with absolutely no sample/product coordination with the merchant" (WoSblog's emphasis), going on to request that "If you would please supply examples of how you perceive my eight-page article as an advertisement, it would be helpful".
4. Stefan solicited the views of the WoS Forum on the subject, where the uniform consensus was that the "review" did indeed read very much like a press release. At this point I posted a comment on the Benchmark Reviews site, politely suggesting that the site ought to disclose when text had been written by the manufacturer of the product under review. At which point things started to get interesting.
5. My comment was swiftly deleted, my IP address was banned from the entire site, and I received an abusive email from Olin Coles, calling me a "dim-witted internet troll" with "sub-par reading skills", and asserting that only two passages in the review were penned by Herman Miller Inc, and that this fact had always been made clear on the review.
6. This claim was a lie. Olin Coles had in fact changed the two passages in question to flag them as being PR quotes, something which was easily proved by the use of Google Cache. He also added a comment to the review page under the title "Full disclosure", which insisted that the two passages had always been in their altered form and added that "The remaining 99.9% of the article is a fully independent review of a self-purchased product". (The remaining text in fact comprised 93.6% of the "review", but let's not split hairs.)
7. Another WoS Forum user, Ian Osborne, had by this point located a passage of text in the section of the review Olin Coles still claimed to have written himself which was word-for-word identical to a passage in Herman Miller's brochure for the Embody chair.
8. I wrote an email to Olin Coles, under my own name and identifying myself as a journalist investigating the allegations, requesting clarification on the rest of the "review" and whether it was indeed all Mr Coles' own work – in particular, the passage taken from the brochure.
9. I received no reply to this email, but shortly afterwards found my name, physical address and telephone number published on the Benchmark Reviews forum, accompanied by claims that I had made anonymous personal threats and accusations. (All of which was of course absolutely untrue. I had made no threats, no accusations and used my real name.)
10. I posted the story on my blog, accompanied by copies of the correspondence, illustrative quotes from the "review", and relevant screenshots I'd taken myself.
11. A journalist colleague had by this point located several more large sections of the "review" on the internet, this time on the website of retailer Smart Furniture. He'd contacted Smart Furniture to enquire as to the source of the text, and received a reply from the company stating that it was their own original copy.
12. Olin Coles now once again stealthily edited the text of his "review", without any acknowledgement that it had been changed. Numerous passages found qualifiers and disclaimers added, where previously there had been direct empirical statements about the chair's incredible medical qualities. It was now admitted, by the addition to the "review" of several citations which were not previously present, that the scientific studies proving these qualities had been solely carried out by Herman Miller, Inc.
13. At the same time, intriguingly, all the advertisements embedded in the eight-page "review" were replaced by ones for… Smart Furniture. I continued to detail these developments on my blog.
14. At this point, Olin Coles filed a complaint with my web hosts under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, demanding the removal of several images and quotes from my original blog post. Despite the complaint failing to comply with several of the legal requirements for a DMCA takedown request*, and despite the images concerned being screenshots taken by me rather than files copied from Benchmark Reviews, and despite the quotes being very obviously protected under the "fair use" provisions of the DMCA, my web hosts (justhost.com) immediately complied with the request, taking down not only the allegedly infringing material but the entire WoSblog site.
*(One of at least three such requirements missing from the notice filed by Mr Coles is a statement that the complainant asserts, under penalty of perjury, that he is entitled to act for the copyright owner of the material in question. If only we could somehow determinewhy Mr Coles didn't feel able to make that particular statement, eh?)
15. Olin Coles also filed several other DMCA complaints, including against the WoS Forum and a mirror of my original blog post on WordPress.com. (The WoS Forum one concerned two images of Olin Coles himself, taken from other sources, which I didn't contest. The WordPress.com one related to the same material as the WoSblog one, and was dismissed by WordPress after I explained the situation, with the material always having remained in place.)
16. WoSblog was eventually reinstated by JustHost with the alleged offending material temporarily removed, pending someone arriving in their offices who knows more about copyright law than a squirrel. In the meantime, the story of the "review" and Olin Coles' hamfisted attempts to suppress the revelations had spread widely across the internet, including stories and mentions on Metafilter, BoingBoing, The Register and Slashdot, as well as numerous other blogs and sites. (WoSblog views alone are well into five figures.)
Today, however, brought yet another fascinating new development in the saga. Stefan Holmes had been continuing his email correspondence with Olin Coles, apparently not having been blamed for the furore despite the fact that Mr Coles was clearly monitoring the WoS Forum (as demonstrated by his DMCA request). Stefan received the following email:
"The other guys, as you put it, are Smart Furniture. I originally purchased the chair from them on 4/16 for $1200, and two weeks after the purchase I decided to write a review. I contacted their marketing department to request assistance with the article I was writing. They offered me high-resolution images, and gave me permission to use the resources found on their website.
The article was published a few months later, after Smart Furniture received a copy. As I said before, all of the text and material sourced from Herman Miller or Smart Furniture was done so with permission beforehand."
This statement raises a whole bunch of intriguing questions and implications.
(i) It seems to disprove Olin Coles' original assertion that the "review" was written "with absolutely no sample/product coordination with the merchant". (Since Herman Miller are the manufacturer and don't sell the chair directly, "the merchant" can only possibly refer to Smart Furniture.)
(ii) It suggests, particularly in the light of Smart Furniture's earlier statement that "All the content was developed in house", that Olin Coles has indeed copied the bulk of the review from Smart Furniture's text – albeit apparently with their permission – rather than it being the case, as he previously asserted, that "99.9% of the article is a fully independent review of a self-purchased product".
(iii) Nevertheless, the timing of the sudden appearance of Smart Furniture advertisements throughout the feature, when prior to WoSblog's investigations there had been none, can't help but raise suspicions. It's not entirely unreasonable to speculate, for example, that Smart Furniture might have originally known nothing about the reappropriation of their text, but settled the matter upon being alerted to it, in return for a lot of free adverts. (WoSblog, of course, emphasises that this IS purely speculation on its part.)
(iv) Oddly, despite having just admitted to being supplied with all the high-resolution images by Smart Furniture, Olin Coles feels able to cover them all in "Benchmark Reviews" watermarks.
I don't know about you, viewers, but I can't wait to find out what happens next in this twisted, tangled tale. You might say, in fact, that I'm sitting on the edge of my seat.