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September 12, 2019

A Masterpiece... If I Do say So Myself

Consumer Blog Report

Imagine that you're an avid reader and look to the many book reviews posted on the Internet in selecting your next novel. Can you trust those reviews? Not always, because the reviewer may, in fact, be the author trumpeting his or her own horn.

In fact, this is exactly what happened recently when an award winning British writer R.J. Ellory posted glowing but fake reviews of his own work on amazon.com. Not only did he praise his own work, but he made up negative reviews of other authors' works.

Ellory, writer of such well known works as A Simple Act of Violence and Winner of the "Crime Novel of the Year", has written gushing reviews of his works under pseudonyms such as "Jelly Bean" and "Nicodemus Jones", lauding his "magnificent genius". Ellory was first exposed on Twitter by an author living in Sweden, Jeremy Duns. Other popular writers, including the well-known author of gothic novels, Anne Rice, have also roundly criticized Ellory for his practices. And authors have claimed that his fake reviews have damaged the publishing industry. He has now admitted on Facebook to writing fictional reviews for a decade: "Over the last 10 years I have posted approximately 12 reviews of my own books…."

And he's not the only one. For example, American John Locke, the American bestselling author, has been accused of the same. Bing Liu, a data mining expert at the University of Chicago, estimates that approximately one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fabricated. Moreover, there are variations on the theme of made-up reviews. The New York Times recently revealed that a Mr. Todd Rutherford wrote glowing book reviews and charged for them. Mr. Rutherford started GettingBookReviews.com, on which he eliminated the middlemen reviews and, for the right price, would create and post numerous favorable reviews for his well-heeled clients. For example, he charged $499 for 20 online reviews; 50 online reviews would set an author back $999. Mr. Rutherford's business collapsed, however, after a public complaint from a would-be customer and a Google suspension of his advertising account. He is now reputedly selling RV's in Oklahoma City but is planning a comeback.

Is this illegal? A deceptive practice? False advertising? They could be actionable under the FTC Act as violating the Endorsement Guides, which require endorsers to disclose any connection with advertisers that might affect the weight or credibility of the endorsements (i.e., that the reviewer is actually the author), or as a misrepresentation of the source of the review. Recently, the FTC has been actively cracking down on fake endorsements and fake news sites touting product benefits. In addition, the federal law governing false advertising, the Lanham Act, prohibits false or misleading representation, in commercial advertising, that is material to a purchasing decision and damaging to the plaintiff.

Can we say that about Mr. Ellory's enthusiastic reviews of his own works, if they prompt his sales to skyrocket and take away from others' sales? Hard to know. If Mr. Ellory's novels really are masterpieces, he would argue, there is no misrepresentation. On the other hand, readers of the reviews are duped into believing that they are receiving independent opinions.

So, next time you see on unbroken string of ecstatic reviews online, take a "page" out of my advice instead: ask someone you know for a candid assessment before picking up the book. What a "novel" idea.

© Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP 2012 All Rights Reserved. This blog post is intended to be a general summary of the law and does not constitute legal advice. You should consult with counsel to determine applicable legal requirements in a specific fact situation.

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