Warner Bros. claims Harry Potter sites

By Stephanie Grunier, and John Lippman, The Wall Street Journal Online
Published on ZDNet News: December 20, 2000, 4:00 PM PT
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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."

Continued: Brand implications...

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