Flaming the Fans

Buffy Summers may know how to slay vampires, demons and other creatures of the night with style, panache and an impeccable wardrobe, but she's never faced adversaries like this before: armies of lawyers, cease-and-desist letters, and cowardly ISPs.

Twentieth Century Fox, which produces the WB show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is well-known for its vigorous defense of copyright online. In the past, the studio has waged high-profile wars against fan sites dedicated to The Simpsons and The X-Files, demanding that sites containing copyrighted material such as sound and video clips either take down the content or shut down entirely. (Fox is not alone in its zealousness, of course; Viacom went after Star Trek fan sites a few years back.) Most recently, Fox has turned its attention to Buffy fan sites, and after several months of conflict, the fans are fighting back.

Last weekend, the Fox headquarters in Los Angeles were host to Fanstock 2000, a fan-organized protest aimed at rallying public opinion behind webmasters of beseiged fan sites. Despite media coverage and a website designed to call attention to the protest, however, only two people showed up, according to event organizer Darcie Hobart. The event was organized by a group called the Buffy Bringers (slayme.com/bringers), which was created in October 1999 to defend fan sites against Fox's efforts to shut them down.

"The Buffy Bringers is a group of concerned fans and webmasters who believe that the actions of the Fox corporation toward their fans is, for lack of a better word, utterly ridiculous," said Solo84, who founded the group (and who prefers to go by her screen alias). "They've been attacking their most adamant supporters, shutting down websites and threatening webmasters who spend hours every day working—for free—to promote Fox's programming."

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Solo84 said she knows of at least 23 sites that have had problems with Fox and suspects there are more she hasn't heard about. Two of the most mourned sites (whose deaths inspired the Bringers) were AleXander's Transcripts and Sounds of the Slayer, which featured (respectively) transcripts of and sound clips from the show.

As ogrish as many online fans obviously think Fox's behavior is, however, there is a whacking great lot of copyright infringement on the Internet. One of the more infamous instances came last spring, when the WB delayed airing the season finale of Buffy (which included a graduation ceremony involving rather more crossbows, stakes and flamethrowers than are normally featured at commencement) because of hypersensitivity about the recent Columbine High School massacre. Incensed by what they perceived as the WB's lily-liverishness, Buffy fans in Canada (where the finale had already aired) downloaded a digital copy of the entire episode onto the Internet so American fans could see it anyway. In a widely publicized, perhaps indiscreet remark, Buffy creator Joss Whedon told the fans, "Bootleg the puppy."

There's no question that this was an act of copyright infringement, and the WB went to great lengths to try to shut it down. But it's also important to note that probably everyone who downloaded the episode—including myself—also watched it when it finally aired on TV later that summer. So did it really hurt the network?

And that's the essence of the ongoing debate between fans and creators of shows: How far can fan sites go in praising the show, and how much does any infringement really hurt the show?

"It's such a sticky and complicated matter," said Jamie Marie Arnold, an Orange County resident who, along with Jeremy Nofs, runs the excellent fan site BuffyGuide.com (www.buffyguide.com). "To a certain extent, one has to be able to see Fox's side: some of the items they have issue with are infringing on their copyrights, without question—such as full episode downloads. Fox has the right and, if my understanding is correct, the obligation to protect that copyright. Many of the fans refuse to accept this, and I don't think they can hope to fight the problem until they understand the laws behind it. It irks me when fans say, 'They can't do that'—well, yes, they can. Perhaps they don't have to, and perhaps they shouldn't in many cases, but they can."

Arnold knows whereof she speaks: a few months ago, she says, her overzealous ISP shut down her site without warning because it decided, apparently independently of any action by Fox, that some of the sound clips on the site violated copyright law.

Solo84 said she hasn't yet been targeted by Fox, but "you never know with them. I run a fan site, and I live in fear every day that I might be next."

But although Solo84 and Arnold admit that Fox has the law on its side when going after genuine cases of copyright infringement (such as posting entire episodes online), they are unanimous in their insistence that fan sites are a blessing, not a burden, to Fox and the shows it produces.

"Fan sites help Fox so much," Solo84 said. "I can't even tell you the amount of e-mail I've gotten saying, 'I was never really into the show until I visited your site.' Fan sites transform fair-weather fans into bona fide fundies."

"Internet fans are hardcore fans," Arnold agreed. "The fans that visit sites like ours regularly become even more involved with the shows—they know every episode title, they wouldn't dare miss an episode (even a rerun), they tape the show and watch it over and over. They also find places to talk about the show, and that helps more than anything."

Arnold sees a possibility for compromise with Fox and other media corporations, however. "I think they need to define what they will and will not tolerate, and make those terms available to webmasters," she said. "It needs to be clear: full episode downloads and transcripts are not okay, screen captures are okay, use of the Buffy logo is not—what have you. When it comes down to it, the real problem is the vague nature of copyright laws."

But Hobart is less accommodating. "I can think of many compromises," she said. "However, Fox does not want a compromise—it wants a dictatorship.

"I know Trekkers who are still mad about having their sites shut down," she added. "It's not smart to anger someone holding a phaser."

Anger Wyn atmachineage@mediaone.net.

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