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December 23, 1999
LIFE; Pg. 4D

"Show's fan sites fight off 'demon' Fox Production company cites its copyrights"

By Kevin V. Johnson

On TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has her hands full keeping demons in check. But in cyberspace, it's the show's lawyers who are busy -- keeping enthusiastic fans under control.

20th Century Fox Television, which produces Buffy for WB, has stunned the online community by taking aim at several well-trafficked fan Web sites.

The sites are the Internet equivalent of taping posters of favorite actors to a bedroom wall. Meticulously constructed by fans, they can include video and audio files, "screenshots" (snapshots of the TV picture), episode transcripts, news about Buffy actors and "spoilers" (plot details) on upcoming shows. Some sites post entire episodes via digital video.

But Fox lawyers have told site owners -- by e-mail and certified letters -- to remove specified material or face a lawsuit. Fox is tight-lipped about its reasons. In a statement released Tuesday, Fox said it "appreciates" fan sites but "requests that sites using Fox's copyrighted and trademarked materials comply with guidelines that protect the creative integrity of the series."

Targeted sites usually shut down or continue in stripped-down form. One site, Slayme.com, has added reviews; site owner J.T. Tomarazzo argues that he is making "fair use" for illustrative purposes.

The legal tactics are part of an "ongoing policing" that also includes sites run by fans of such Fox shows as The Simpsons and King of the Hill, Fox says. Three years ago, when The X-Files sites were targeted, fans responded with thousands of angry e-mail messages.

Now it's Buffy aficionados who are upset. They say their lovingly crafted homages are often more informative than Buffy 's official Web home (www.buffyslayer.com).

Fans "go to these sites and get pumped up to watch the next Buffy ," says Angela Diprima, who had to delete several dozen video clips from her Scenes From the Slayer site (www.btvs.slayme.com). "What Fox is doing is harsh. And it takes away from, I think, fans' support of the show."

Fans say their sites -- most of which generate no profit -- promote and celebrate the show. That's a benefit that some other production companies encourage. Some include links to fan sites on their shows' official Internet homes.

"It's frankly the embracing of fans that is so much more important than trying to quash them," says Tony Krantz, CEO of Imagine Television, producer of the WB college drama Felicity, which has an active online following.

"An individual publishing photographs from Felicity is insignificant. It's not going to change our bottom line one penny," Krantz says. Instead, "it's going to create a richer experience for that particular fan and the people who click onto that particular Web site. If we can encourage that . . . that's what we're going to do."

But the line can be difficult to walk, says Justin Pierce, spokesman for Columbia TriStar Television Group, which produces Web favorites Dawson's Creek (WB) and Party of Five (Fox). "We want to protect our legal rights, but . . . we don't want to alienate people who are honest, upright fans, whose sites might actually be very good, positive publicity." Columbia TriStar cracks down on sites that try to profit from a show or display pornography; others are usually left alone.

Of course, nobody likes to see someone else making a profit from their creative effort, but that's the situation Warner Bros. Television (Friends, ER) encountered recently. It found that Web providers such as GeoCities were inviting fans to build sites on their domains, then selling ads to companies interested in reaching that audience. Warner Bros. Online's solution was to establish its own domain, AcmeCity (www.acmecity.com), and invite Web page builders to set up shop there. Since January, 1.5 million user-generated pages have been added.

"We decided that we were going to create a better experience for the fans," Warner Bros. Online president Jim Moloshok says.

Meanwhile, what are Buffy fans hoping for? Besides letter-writing campaigns -- one is at Buffy Bringers (slayme.com/bringers) -- there is an effort to generate support for a national blackout day May 13 at Strike Back Against Fox (Peacefully) (www.on.to/blackout), when fan sites for every television show would be taken down for 24 hours.

But "I don't know how much that will accomplish," Diprima says. "I hope maybe Fox will settle down and forget about it."