The Shortsighted Site Busters

Fan sites amateur sites do more than give ideas to designers of official sites. But media companies operating on legal autopilot don't seem to see things that way.

Forbes , July 23, 2000

WHEN JUSTIN KUZMANICH SET OUT TO design a Web site for the TV series That '70s Show, he knew the viewers' demographics. But he needed more: What did fans really like? What information would keep them coming back? What visual style would turn them on?

To find out, Kuzmanich, the senior Web designer at A.D.2 in Santa Monica, Calif., didn't lavish money on market research. He toured the many amateur sites that fans had already created. "Nowadays," he says, "it's easy to go see what people like, because you've got fans creating their own content." From his Web research, Kuzmanich picked up ideas on both content (guides to past episodes) and style ("a certain cheesiness," for that 1970s feel).

Kuzmanich, whose client was show producer Carsey-Werner Co., believes amateur sites do more than give ideas to designers of official sites. They also give entertainment properties a marketing boost of their own. But media companies operating on legal autopilot don't seem to see things that way.

Instead of looking for ways to tap fan enthusiasm, they're sending scary cease-and-desist letters to their best customers. In particular, News Corp.'s Fox network and Twentieth Century-Fox Television production company have alienated many fans of such cult shows as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You have to wonder whether the companies' marketing people know what's going on.

To the lawyers, it's simply a matter of protecting intellectual property. Fan sites often cross the fair-use line by publishing copyrighted photos, typographical fonts or transcripts. Fox's vigilant policing is within its legal rights.

But intellectual property law does not require threatening fan sites with lawsuits. It's a business decision--and a bad one. "I think that's just shortsightedness, or panic, or both. It's just not thinking clearly," says David Post, a specialist in intellectual property and Internet law at Temple University Law School. The studios have an open-and-shut case on the law, he says, but they aren't keeping their business goals in mind. "Everybody else on the Net is trying to get buzz," says Post. "These sites are buzz factories."

The tough-guy approach not only undercuts millions of dollars in marketing. It fosters anticorporate sentiment, especially among young people.

"I'm just a teenager. I'm not in a position where I'm expecting to hear from lawyers," says Michelle, a 17-year-old who runs three fan sites devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel, both owned by Twentieth Century-Fox Television.

Michelle, who asked that her last name not be published, has altered her sites to comply with Fox's demands and doesn't expect further trouble. But the experience has left her disillusioned and angry.

"We do this for free and Fox just doesn't seem to care," she says. Adding, "Nobody had much to say about whether they liked or disliked Fox before this all began. Now they despise Fox." (Fox did not respond to numerous requests for comment.) In mid-May some 545 amateur sites, including more than 300 devoted to Buffy, went offline in a "blackout" to protest Fox's attacks.

This issue isn't like the Napster and Gnutella technologies roiling the music industry. None of these fans question the studios' rights to profit from their shows, and the sites don't threaten anyone's revenue. To the contrary, the sites give shows free publicity, and they encourage audience loyalty. "There's got to be room for a deal," says Post.

Kuzmanich's firm is working on one. Two of its movie-related sites, and, offer affiliate programs. Fan sites can register at the official site and, once approved, get access to site-building materials, such as photos and other graphics, that aren't available to the general public. In return, the fan sites must link to the official site.

"A good official site will not try to stamp out or silence the fan sites," says Kuzmanich. "If the person or the company is smart, they will try to incorporate what the fans are doing into the official site." Try telling that to the lawyers.