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Warner Bros. claims Harry Potter sites

The movie studio is claiming that many of the fan Web sites violate its intellectual-property rights and is demanding the domain names be surrendered.
Written by Stephanie Grunier, Contributor on
To many fans of Harry Potter, the greatest threat facing the boy wizard might not be the dark Lord Voldemort anymore. Potter's new enemy is taking shape in the guise of film studio Warner Brothers.

The Internet has sprouted thousands of unofficial fan Web pages that honor the popular character from the children's book series. Now Warner Brothers, which is making a Harry Potter film, is claiming that many of the fan Web sites violate its intellectual-property rights and is demanding the domain names be surrendered to the studio. The unit of Time Warner Inc. purchased the film and merchandising rights, as well as the trademarks and copyrights to the characters, from the books' author, J.K. Rowling.

Earlier this month, 15-year-old Claire Field received a letter from Warner Brothers' London legal department asking her to turn over the name www.harrypotterguide.co.uk. Like her dragon-defying idol, the British youth rebelled. She sent an e-mail message to a British tabloid, the Mirror, which ran a story about her. A U.K.-based online news site, the Register, picked up the story, which was soon posted on fan-related online newsgroups. Internet users from around world -- youngsters and adults alike -- are now urging Field to fight back.

"I've just read the news that the Evil Dark Arts experts a.k.a. Warner Brothers are trying to cast some dark charms and shut down this site. GOLLY! What total ROT. We have got to get some good charms and wand waving to seriously sort them out," wrote a fellow Harry Potter fan on Field's Web site.

Added another online correspondent: "Companies like these need to be taught a lesson. Good luck with your site and keep it up."

Hollywood studios periodically clamp down on fan Web sites whose use of domain names, as well as images from popular movies and television shows, violates the studios' trademarks and copyrights. However, the studios have in some instances allowed unauthorized use of their trademarks and copyrights as long as the sites are produced by friendly fans and don't seek to make a profit. Lawyers for Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc., several years ago began sending warning letters to "Star Trek" fan sites informing them that they were violating copyright laws. The studio subsequently backed off some of its threats as long as the Web sites weren't part of commercial ventures.

Lucasfilm, the producer of "Star Wars," for several years pursued a strategy that allowed many of the fan-based "Star Wars" sites to flourish online. But as the first "Star Wars" movie in 16 years was nearing release in 1999, Lucasfilm executives began reining in some of the more egregious copyright violators by demanding they remove such elements as audio clips from their Web sites. Then, when Little Brown & Co., a Time Warner unit, published "The Unauthorized Star Wars Compendium," Lucasfilm promptly sued the publisher as part of what it called a "world-wide campaign" to crack down on unauthorized commercial use of its copyrights. A representative for Lucasfilm says the lawsuit has been settled, but declined to provide details.

Its legal rights notwithstanding, Warner Brothers' crackdown has enraged many of Harry Potter's loyal fans. Hundreds of fan-site creators in addition to Field have been sent letters. Christie Chang, a 15-year-old from Singapore, has received two letters from Warner Brothers' lawyers. One says that the fan site, to which she devotes at least an hour a day, violates copyright laws by using various Harry Potter images. The other letter from the studio's lawyers demands back the domain name she has registered, www.harrypotternetwork.net, and insists she promptly contact them in Beverly Hills, California.

Chang -- who also uses an e-mail account named after the series' only Asian character, Cho Chang, the girl of Harry Potter's dreams -- says she doesn't even use the domain name in question because she considers it "cheesy." Instead, she houses her fan site at hpnetwork.f2s.com/. Still, she has removed most images from the site and is scared that one day she will be forced to close down "because other fairly well-established sites have shut down due to notices from Warner Brothers."

Scott Allison, a 28-year-old Scottish computer technician, eventually agreed to transfer his domain name to Warner Brothers, but not before casting some evil spells of his own. He posted his plight on his own Web site as well as on an online bulletin board for Harry Potter fans. "All I wanted to do was set up a site for fans of Harry Potter, like myself, and now I'm being attacked by a large corporation who know I don't have the financial means to defend myself," he wrote on the site, encouraging people to send e-mails to Warner Brothers' director of legal and business affairs for Europe, who had contacted him.

In the end, Allison closed his site, but vowed to keep up the fight. His angry postings on fan chat sites have turned friendly discussions about favorite wizards into less pleasant musings about blue-chip ogres. "Corporate thinking sucks," wrote one person. Some messages suggested boycotting Harry Potter altogether. "I had an interest in buying Harry Potter books for my nephews as a holiday gift," wrote one fan. "Looks like Nintendo will get my money instead." To many fans of Harry Potter, the greatest threat facing the boy wizard might not be the dark Lord Voldemort anymore. Potter's new enemy is taking shape in the guise of film studio Warner Brothers.

The Internet has sprouted thousands of unofficial fan Web pages that honor the popular character from the children's book series. Now Warner Brothers, which is making a Harry Potter film, is claiming that many of the fan Web sites violate its intellectual-property rights and is demanding the domain names be surrendered to the studio. The unit of Time Warner Inc. purchased the film and merchandising rights, as well as the trademarks and copyrights to the characters, from the books' author, J.K. Rowling.

Earlier this month, 15-year-old Claire Field received a letter from Warner Brothers' London legal department asking her to turn over the name www.harrypotterguide.co.uk. Like her dragon-defying idol, the British youth rebelled. She sent an e-mail message to a British tabloid, the Mirror, which ran a story about her. A U.K.-based online news site, the Register, picked up the story, which was soon posted on fan-related online newsgroups. Internet users from around world -- youngsters and adults alike -- are now urging Field to fight back.

"I've just read the news that the Evil Dark Arts experts a.k.a. Warner Brothers are trying to cast some dark charms and shut down this site. GOLLY! What total ROT. We have got to get some good charms and wand waving to seriously sort them out," wrote a fellow Harry Potter fan on Field's Web site.

Added another online correspondent: "Companies like these need to be taught a lesson. Good luck with your site and keep it up."

Hollywood studios periodically clamp down on fan Web sites whose use of domain names, as well as images from popular movies and television shows, violates the studios' trademarks and copyrights. However, the studios have in some instances allowed unauthorized use of their trademarks and copyrights as long as the sites are produced by friendly fans and don't seek to make a profit. Lawyers for Paramount Pictures, a unit of Viacom Inc., several years ago began sending warning letters to "Star Trek" fan sites informing them that they were violating copyright laws. The studio subsequently backed off some of its threats as long as the Web sites weren't part of commercial ventures.

Lucasfilm, the producer of "Star Wars," for several years pursued a strategy that allowed many of the fan-based "Star Wars" sites to flourish online. But as the first "Star Wars" movie in 16 years was nearing release in 1999, Lucasfilm executives began reining in some of the more egregious copyright violators by demanding they remove such elements as audio clips from their Web sites. Then, when Little Brown & Co., a Time Warner unit, published "The Unauthorized Star Wars Compendium," Lucasfilm promptly sued the publisher as part of what it called a "world-wide campaign" to crack down on unauthorized commercial use of its copyrights. A representative for Lucasfilm says the lawsuit has been settled, but declined to provide details.

Its legal rights notwithstanding, Warner Brothers' crackdown has enraged many of Harry Potter's loyal fans. Hundreds of fan-site creators in addition to Field have been sent letters. Christie Chang, a 15-year-old from Singapore, has received two letters from Warner Brothers' lawyers. One says that the fan site, to which she devotes at least an hour a day, violates copyright laws by using various Harry Potter images. The other letter from the studio's lawyers demands back the domain name she has registered, www.harrypotternetwork.net, and insists she promptly contact them in Beverly Hills, California.

Chang -- who also uses an e-mail account named after the series' only Asian character, Cho Chang, the girl of Harry Potter's dreams -- says she doesn't even use the domain name in question because she considers it "cheesy." Instead, she houses her fan site at hpnetwork.f2s.com/. Still, she has removed most images from the site and is scared that one day she will be forced to close down "because other fairly well-established sites have shut down due to notices from Warner Brothers."

Scott Allison, a 28-year-old Scottish computer technician, eventually agreed to transfer his domain name to Warner Brothers, but not before casting some evil spells of his own. He posted his plight on his own Web site as well as on an online bulletin board for Harry Potter fans. "All I wanted to do was set up a site for fans of Harry Potter, like myself, and now I'm being attacked by a large corporation who know I don't have the financial means to defend myself," he wrote on the site, encouraging people to send e-mails to Warner Brothers' director of legal and business affairs for Europe, who had contacted him.

In the end, Allison closed his site, but vowed to keep up the fight. His angry postings on fan chat sites have turned friendly discussions about favorite wizards into less pleasant musings about blue-chip ogres. "Corporate thinking sucks," wrote one person. Some messages suggested boycotting Harry Potter altogether. "I had an interest in buying Harry Potter books for my nephews as a holiday gift," wrote one fan. "Looks like Nintendo will get my money instead." In Warner Brothers' view, the letters are standard fare. Nils Montan, a senior intellectual-property lawyer for the company, says that of the hundreds of letters sent regarding the Harry Potter-related Web sites, none previously provoked such ire. He says he is sorry if fans misunderstand Warner Brothers' intentions -- especially teenagers such as Chang or Field, whose lively Web site features a chat room, quizzes and a dictionary of spells and potions. But, he adds, the company has no way of knowing if the creators are age 10 or 40, or how their future plans might affect the Harry Potter brand.

Field's Web site clearly states on its opening page that it is an unofficial Harry Potter site with no connections to J.K. Rowling, Warner Brothers, or the books' publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC and Scholastic Inc. It then gives the Web addresses for each of these companies. But Montan says that in some cases the owners have turned out to be cybersquatters, individuals who hope to make a quick profit off a potentially valuable name. Already, there is an action pending against someone who has registered nearly 60 domain names using various trademarks related to the series, he adds.

Whatever the scenario, he says Warner Brothers can't afford not to act. It already has gone to the trouble and expense of applying for and registering some 2,000 trademarks for made-up words such as Quidditch, a game similar to hockey but played in the air by wizards on broomsticks, and Hogwarts, the name of the school for wizards that Harry Potter attends. Legally speaking, if the company appears to look the other way now, it could have a weaker case later. Still, says Montan: "We try to be light-handed. We don't always succeed, but that's our intent."

Field, who created her nonprofit Web site last year, didn't see it that way. In fact, the terse letter the teenager received on Dec. 2 from Warner Brothers terrified her. The letter said that Rowling and Warner Brothers were concerned that Field's domain-name registration would likely cause consumer confusion and dilution of the studio's intellectual-property rights. The letter gave her 28 days to transfer the domain name to Warner Brothers, offering to reimburse her for the registration fee. "If we do not hear from you by 15 December 2000 we shall put this matter into the hands of our solicitors," it concluded.

The next day, Field wrote an e-mail to the Internet editor at the Mirror, asking for help: "I cannot understand how a 15-year-old schoolgirl can pose such a threat to an international company, like Warner Brothers."

After the tabloid wrote about the dispute, a Warner Brothers spokeswoman, Barbara Brogliatti, jumped in to smooth things over with Miss Field's father, Les Field. However, their correspondences have grown acrimonious, with Field accusing Brogliatti of vilifying him and his daughter in the press and Brogliatti saying the family never should have spoken to the Mirror and suggesting conversations continue through their lawyers. Field couldn't be reached to comment.

"We're trying to bend over backward to come up with a unique arrangement to adapt our policy if we can," says Brogliatti, explaining that Warner Brothers has considered licensing the domain name to Field for free. As long as Warner Brothers gets final say on content, Miss Field would be free to maintain the site and bring in the fans.

Warner Brothers says its intention isn't to shut down fan sites. Nevertheless, all this adult talk is leaving kids confused, and in some cases defiant. Fifteen-year old Arne Tutschapsky of Germany, creator of the fan site harrypotter-buch.de, hasn't heard from Warner Brothers yet, but fears he will soon because he says a fellow German fan-site builder has until two days before Christmas to give up his domain name. "I hope that I won't get a letter," Tutschapsky says. "I think it's not fair, because people who want to be Harry Potter fans and create a fan site about this should be able to do it."

"No one will make me close my site, save maybe my parents," says Miss Chang, whose site attracts nearly a thousand visitors a day, from the U.S. to South Africa. She says she doesn't mind turning over the domain name, but won't give up her site. "I personally think that Warner Brothers is trying to scare us kids to profit from established fan communities," she says.

Her mission, she says, is straightforward. "I'm trying to create a place where as many people as possible from around the world can meet and discuss what they love," she says. "It's quite simple." In Warner Brothers' view, the letters are standard fare. Nils Montan, a senior intellectual-property lawyer for the company, says that of the hundreds of letters sent regarding the Harry Potter-related Web sites, none previously provoked such ire. He says he is sorry if fans misunderstand Warner Brothers' intentions -- especially teenagers such as Chang or Field, whose lively Web site features a chat room, quizzes and a dictionary of spells and potions. But, he adds, the company has no way of knowing if the creators are age 10 or 40, or how their future plans might affect the Harry Potter brand.

Field's Web site clearly states on its opening page that it is an unofficial Harry Potter site with no connections to J.K. Rowling, Warner Brothers, or the books' publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC and Scholastic Inc. It then gives the Web addresses for each of these companies. But Montan says that in some cases the owners have turned out to be cybersquatters, individuals who hope to make a quick profit off a potentially valuable name. Already, there is an action pending against someone who has registered nearly 60 domain names using various trademarks related to the series, he adds.

Whatever the scenario, he says Warner Brothers can't afford not to act. It already has gone to the trouble and expense of applying for and registering some 2,000 trademarks for made-up words such as Quidditch, a game similar to hockey but played in the air by wizards on broomsticks, and Hogwarts, the name of the school for wizards that Harry Potter attends. Legally speaking, if the company appears to look the other way now, it could have a weaker case later. Still, says Montan: "We try to be light-handed. We don't always succeed, but that's our intent."

Field, who created her nonprofit Web site last year, didn't see it that way. In fact, the terse letter the teenager received on Dec. 2 from Warner Brothers terrified her. The letter said that Rowling and Warner Brothers were concerned that Field's domain-name registration would likely cause consumer confusion and dilution of the studio's intellectual-property rights. The letter gave her 28 days to transfer the domain name to Warner Brothers, offering to reimburse her for the registration fee. "If we do not hear from you by 15 December 2000 we shall put this matter into the hands of our solicitors," it concluded.

The next day, Field wrote an e-mail to the Internet editor at the Mirror, asking for help: "I cannot understand how a 15-year-old schoolgirl can pose such a threat to an international company, like Warner Brothers."

After the tabloid wrote about the dispute, a Warner Brothers spokeswoman, Barbara Brogliatti, jumped in to smooth things over with Miss Field's father, Les Field. However, their correspondences have grown acrimonious, with Field accusing Brogliatti of vilifying him and his daughter in the press and Brogliatti saying the family never should have spoken to the Mirror and suggesting conversations continue through their lawyers. Field couldn't be reached to comment.

"We're trying to bend over backward to come up with a unique arrangement to adapt our policy if we can," says Brogliatti, explaining that Warner Brothers has considered licensing the domain name to Field for free. As long as Warner Brothers gets final say on content, Miss Field would be free to maintain the site and bring in the fans.

Warner Brothers says its intention isn't to shut down fan sites. Nevertheless, all this adult talk is leaving kids confused, and in some cases defiant. Fifteen-year old Arne Tutschapsky of Germany, creator of the fan site harrypotter-buch.de, hasn't heard from Warner Brothers yet, but fears he will soon because he says a fellow German fan-site builder has until two days before Christmas to give up his domain name. "I hope that I won't get a letter," Tutschapsky says. "I think it's not fair, because people who want to be Harry Potter fans and create a fan site about this should be able to do it."

"No one will make me close my site, save maybe my parents," says Miss Chang, whose site attracts nearly a thousand visitors a day, from the U.S. to South Africa. She says she doesn't mind turning over the domain name, but won't give up her site. "I personally think that Warner Brothers is trying to scare us kids to profit from established fan communities," she says.

Her mission, she says, is straightforward. "I'm trying to create a place where as many people as possible from around the world can meet and discuss what they love," she says. "It's quite simple."

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