Gill Trevizo, an Internet surfer and devoted X-Files fan, decided to merge his two interests recently by erecting a World Wide Web site in homage to Millennium, the highly anticipated follow-up to his beloved science fiction TV series. But even before the show hit the air last fall, officials from Fox Television paid Trevizo an electronic visit, ordering to cease publishing unofficial details about the show. He protested, and the network persuaded officials at the University of Texas - where Trevizo's site was located - to shut him down.
The scene is becoming a common occurrence as Hollywood's mounting business interests in cyberspace clash with the freewheeling culture of the Internet. In recent months, Twentieth Century-Fox has forced fans to close numerous other sites for unauthorized use of images, including some dedicated to Millennium, The Simpsons, and The X-Files. Lucas-film has reportedly shot down Star Wars sites for printing synopses or film plots and Spelling Entertainment Group has gone after several Beverly Hills 90210 fan sites for similar reasons.
"They want total control of how their shows are presented", Trevizo said. "They just don't understand the Web as interactive, as a community."
While the chances of getting caught - let alone sued - by a network for innocently borrowing a snapshot or two remain slim, many Web hobbyists complain Hollywood is setting a bad example, that media companies are alienating the very fans responsible for their success.
"It's a whole new kind of publishing out there", said Misha Glouberman, a Toronto Web designer who hosts a site dedicated to trademark and copyright infringement and is part of a group protesting Fox Television's actions against fan sites. "My advice is go ahead and do it and see what happens. There is no precedent where you have hundreds and hundreds of people publishing things that are seen by hundreds of others. In five years time, there will be a better defined set of laws and norms [for Internet publishing]."
Though most laws governing copyright were written with print and broadcast media in mind, experts tend to agree the same rules apply to the Internet.
David Jones, a McMaster University computer professor and president of Electronic Frontier Canada, sister organization to the the U.S.-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which lobbies to defend electronic-property rights, said posting proprietary images of Hollywood stars on the Internet is a legal no-no. Jones said copyright and trademark protection is no different on the Internet than in newspapers or television. "If you digitize something off the television and put it on the web, that is a violation of copyright. People put whatever the heck they want on their web pages. They don't generally pay attention to copyright or trademarks, they just do it."
Peter Jacobsen, lawyer with the Toronto firm Paterson MacDougall, concurs. He said Web-based copyright violators can be sued in Canada in the civil courts and forced to remove the offending material and pay damages and legal costs.
For their part, the media companies tend to be less than eager to discuss the crackdown publicly, and, when they do, many soft-pedal their opposition to fan sites.
Fox, among the most vigilant networks to crack down on violators, said it doesn't object in principle to sites that use Fox property but rather only those that defame images or use them for profit. "It comes down to quite simply what is their intent", said a senior legal official with Fox TV, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "If they are just truly expressing themselves as fans, if it is seen as promotional value for the show, we don't have problems with that. We have problems with people who remove our trademark and copyright notices, alter pictures, or are carrying advertising or charging a fee to use their site."
Among the media companies' biggest concerns are unflattering presentations of their images, such as depictions of cartoon characters in sexually suggestive positions. Warner Brothers has been one of the main targets of this abuse, and a letter has been making the electronic rounds asking certain parties to remove from their Web sites "depictions of the Warner Brothers characters engaged in acts of a blatantly pornographic nature." However, Nils Victor Montan, vice-president and senior intellectual property counsel with Warner Brothers, whose name appears on the letter, refused to comment.
Web hobbyists say one solution would be to have more consistent policies from the entertainment companies that indicate what types of materials can be reproduced on Web pages and how. "Some sites have been asked to remove specific material while others, which may contain the same or similar materials, don't seem to have any problems", said Tina Matysiak, a Vancouver social worker and University of British Columbia graduate student who runs an X-Files site.
Cought in the middle are Internet providers. Margo Langford, vice-president, general counsel for Ottawa-based Istar Internet, said her company subscribes to the Canadian Association of Internet Providers' code of conduct, which states they will not knowingly host illegal content, but that they cannot be expected to search for any either.
Langford said the users are responsible for content, but Istar reserves the right to cancel accounts. "We cannot actually change or remove the content, we can only shut it down. It is a heavy hammer and only used once the CAIP procedure has been followed", which Langford said requires them to notify the site owner, inform him or her of the complaint, and ask for a response with seven days.
Internet providers generally do not take a stand about what people do with their Web pages, Langford added. "Anyone who believes that they can publish musical works, or even clips of them, lyrics, photos, or live performances without permission risks prosecution."
Not every fan has problems paying tribute to the object of their devotion. "I was looking for Traders stuff and there wasn't anything", said Cale McCallum, an Ottawa high-school student and creator of a Traders Web site.
McCallum, whose site contains an episode guide, a characters page, and pictures of the show, obtained some of his material directly from Atlantis, the show's producer. "I had to state that I didn't work for Atlantis and I put up a disclaimer saying the characters and names were Atlantis's and stating their ownership", he said. "They realize it is free publicity. At first they were a little apprehensive about copyright, but just last week I got a letter from Atlantis saying the site looked great." He said anyone can create a Web site in an afternoon. And he figures he spends 35 to 40 minutes a week updating the site. "If Atlantis says take it down, I'll take it down and still watch the show. This helps them more than it helps me. I'll walk the line as long as I can."