Web War: Hollywood Tangles With Fans' On-Line Sites

Gil Trevizo was the ultimate fan. Even before the new television series "Millennium" aired in October, he had created an extensive Internet site about the show. There were character profiles and lots of pictures.

But the studio, Fox Broadcasting, was not pleased. Mr. Trevizo had scooped its plans for its own "Millennium" Web site. Even worse, he had posted images from the opening show, which hadn't even aired yet. The studio sent a warning, and Trevizo, a college student, took the site down.

Fox may have won the battle, but its action so infuriated on-line denizens that they have started an Internet campaign to save TV and movie fan sites from studio meddling. Partly, this is a battle over copyrights and trademarks. It is also a larger struggle to adjust to an Internet age where everyone is a publisher and even college students can challenge studio heads for the world's collective ear.

At stake are not only billions of dollars in publishing and advertising revenues, but also the rights of Hollywood to its creations and the publishing rights of the newly emerging Internet citizen or "netizen," as he or she is coming to be called.

"The Net presents real challenges and real threats - and also real opportunities to owners of intellectual property," says James Boyle, professor of law at American University in Washington, D.C. "No one really knows what this means."

At its most basic level, this is a battle over intellectual property. Concerned that copyrights are under Internet attack and spurred on by the Clinton administration, negotiators from 160 nations are meeting in Geneva this month to extend copyright protection to cyberspace. Some of their proposals are broadly supported. Others have stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy.

For instance, one proposal for computer databases sets such a strict standard that the publisher of a computerized telephone directory could conceivably charge people a fee for extracting their own telephone number and putting it on their business card, Professor Boyle says.

Copyright confusion

"The proposals don't work with the technology," says Ephraim Cohen, coordinator of the Digital Future Coalition, a Washington, D.C., group of private- and public-sector organizations formed a year ago to protect copyright owners and copyright users. Negotiators have defined digital copying so broadly that the Net, which delivers messages by copying text from one computer to another, would pretty much have to shut down, he says.

Many copyright experts argue that intellectual-property laws don't need to be strengthened. Fox and several other studio corporations have successfully stopped trademark and copyright infringements on the Internet merely by threatening legal action, they point out. Other organizations, including Kmart, Smith Barney, and the Church of Scientology, have used the law to get individuals to change or eliminate material they've published on the Web. "Existing copyright law gives ample remedies," says Timothy Muth, a Milwaukee attorney who represents an "X-Files" fan. The fan took the series' theme song off of his Web site after Fox contacted him.

But most of these copyright and trademark run-ins were small affairs and barely noticed. When Hollywood tried similar tactics, the action spawned a popular on-line backlash.

The studios got a first whiff of this in January, when Lucasfilm asked Jason Ruspini, a University of Pennsylvania student, to dismantle his "Star Wars" site. He did. But he also posted excerpts of his conversation with the company on the Web. Infuriated "Star Wars" fans started their own electronic-mail campaign excoriating the company. In April, it issued Mr. Ruspini a formal apology and said it would develop guidelines for fan sites on the Web. "It was a misunderstanding," says Jeanne Cole, a spokeswoman for Lucasfilm. "We survive because of our fans."

'Star Trek' scooped

In June, an attorney for Paramount Pictures Corp. asked "Star Trek" fan David Henderson to remove the photos and detailed synopsis of its coming "Star Trek" movie, "First Contact." The synopsis, months ahead of the movie's release, was removed. But, as with many things on the Internet, it quickly reappeared on other sites. "Once things start circulating, it's hard to put the genie back in the bottle - and with the Internet, it's well nigh impossible," says Mr. Muth, the attorney.

The "Millennium" incident this fall has been the most visible clash between Hollywood and Internet fans. Many creators of Web sites based on other shows, especially Fox's popular "X-Files," worry that the studio will close them down too. "It is becoming clear that this is not just a matter of either copyright or trademark ... but that Fox execs want complete and total control over how every facet of their company is portrayed on the Internet," writes Lori Bloomer, one of the organizers of XFACTOR-X-Philes for Abolishing Censorship Threatening Our Rights. (An X-Phile is a fan of "The X-Files" show.) "They have thus far shown themselves unwilling to compromise.... If there will be no peaceful compromise, we are willing to fight."

The movement has its own logo: "Free Speech Is Out There" - a clever parody of "The X-Files" show (parodies are typically allowed under copyright law). It has flooded Fox with electronic mail and attracted support from more than 40 Internet sites.

For its part, Fox says it is merely trying to protect the creative integrity of its programs. "It's not our intention to shut down bona fide fan sites," a company spokesman says.

In the last couple of years, the company has sent out about 25 to 35 warning letters for Web infringements of everything from "The X-Files" to "The Simpsons." Most of the time, the Web site creators have been unaware they were violating copyrights and have changed their sites to remove the offending material, the company says. It is most concerned about sites that make excessive use of copyrighted images, that don't contain copyright and trademark notices, and that use the materials in a profitmaking venture. Thus, Fox has sent warnings to a Harvard medical school student who was using the Net to sell bootleg copies of "The Simpsons" series and a Web-design company that was using an "X-Files" logo to sell its services.

But it's clear that the nature of the Internet frustrates studio executives. After getting one "Simpsons" fan to close his site, which linked the cartoon characters to his business, Fox found he reactivated it, this time with proper copyright and trademark notices, but still with a link to his business. Other Web site creators have grafted the faces of TV characters onto pornographic photos.

Studios 'don't get it'

"Regulatory bodies are going to step in and clamp down on what's being done," says an attorney for a television-production company. "And I think that's a shame, because for every 100 people that are just being fans and appreciative, you've got one out there who's out for his own agenda. In the end, it forces everyone to tighten up."

But Web fans say it's the studios that don't get it. "They don't understand an active medium where you have to interact with people as a community rather than purely as customers," says Trevizo. If studio executives decided to cooperate with that community, they could get Web creators to police the medium and ostracize anyone who didn't follow the norms. But "it's not something they can control."

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