Uneasy Alliance

It's a sad fact of Internet life that when it comes to TV shows, movies and other fannish beasts, the lavish official sites often suck suet in comparison to their fans' amateur offerings.

Take the WB's site for its cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer (www.buffy.com). It's cute and all, what with the flashy graphics, the vaguely Goth lettering, and the tidbits of background information on the show. There's even a posting board where, on off days, Buffy staffers (including series creator Joss Whedon) can be found lurking. But it seems superficial-more a carefully calculated plea for viewership than a heartfelt celebration of what, at its best, is an exuberant, daring and wildly entertaining show.

By contrast, there's the Complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episode Guide (buffyguide.simplenet.com). Run by Fullerton residents Jamie Marie Arnold and Jeremy J. Nofs, who took over the site from its original creators in December, the site is an astounding compendium of all that is Slayerish. Each episode gets its own page of analysis, complete with a synopsis, pictures, sound clips, a table detailing who died and in what manner and at whose hands (Buffy, with a stake, in the cemetery), lines of lovable and loathsome dialogue, and carefully researched explanations of the more obscure references followed by Arnold's and Nofs' personal reactions to the episode. Then there's the character guide, the FAQ, and the breakdown of episodes into thematic groups.

All of this takes a staggering amount of work. "We've never really done the math, but between making the adjustments in the code, watching the episode a total of four times, capturing all the images, writing the synopsis, researching the references, typing up all the other stuff, recording the applicable audio and video files, double checking all the links and images, and editing everything (and I may have forgotten something), I would say we spend a total of at least 15 hours per episode," Arnold said.

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There are other, equally devoted Buffy fans out there, of course. There's the Domain of the Slain (www2.uic.edu/~ahufan1/btvs), which offers extensive quotations from every episode and a reference guide to the eclectic musical offerings on the show (featuring everything from Velvet Chain to k's Choice to the Sex Pistols). There's the Cultural Reference Guide to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/7734), which gives even more detailed explanations of obscure dialogue than Arnold and Nofs' site. And there are many, many more.

While it may be embarrassing for the WB to have its professionally managed site shown up by fans working in their spare time, they-unlike some other companies-are tolerant of their fans' efforts to carve out a little slice of Buffy for themselves. Buffy.com simply requests that fans using pictures and other copyrighted material on their own sites include the proper copyright notices.

Arnold says they've never had any trouble from the WB over their site. "But we do take care to put up the standard disclaimers; we don't want to take it for granted," she said.

Fan sites on the Web have for years shared an uneasy relationship with the objects of their adulation, but things seem to be improving. It's a tricky situation for creators. Many fear that if they don't defend unauthorized use of their intellectual property online, they'll lose their copyright protection. And of course, they want to control how information about their work is disseminated. The fans, on the other hand, argue that they're creating the sites because they love the show/movie/comic book/etc. and they're providing companies with oodles of free publicity.

That publicity can turn nasty overnight if companies get overly zealous in the pursuit of copyrights. In the bad old days when the Web was getting started-way back in 1996 or so-the tension between creators and fans sometimes erupted into open warfare. Before the premiere of the gloomy TV series Millennium, Fox cracked down on several fan sites with heavy-handed threats of legal action. (Fox had reportedly spent a hundred grand or so on its own official site.) A couple of months later, Paramount did the same to several Star Trek sites, demanding that the Webmasters remove scripts, pictures, fan art, sound and video clips, and so on from their sites.

Fans exploded in outrage. More than two years later, you can still find protest sites slamming Fox for its Millennium crackdown. Star Trek fans banded together to form the Online Freedom Federation (www.off-hq.org) protesting Paramount's actions. The Trademark Wars on the Web site (www.web.net/~misha/trademark.html) tracks sites that have been targeted by companies for trademark infringement-many of them fan sites.

But things are looking a bit more relaxed. That isn't to say the occasional legal fistfight doesn't break out; Core Design, makers of the Tomb Raider games, just filed suit against a Web site featuring nude pictures of their pneumatic heroine, Lara Croft-gaming's first pin-up girl. But for the most part, companies have learned to appreciate fans' efforts.

"Fan sites are a way for people to say: 'This is a great show; I love it. It's on every Tuesday at 8 p.m., and everyone should watch it!'" Arnold said. "And hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people are doing this, without Warner Bros. having to pay them a dime."

Warner Bros. has even carried the concept a bit further; in January, it announced the creation of Acme City, an online community where fans could create free home pages dedicated to their favorite shows (including Buffy). That way, the WB can control how its intellectual property is used-and collect gobs of marketing information on its fans. Thousands of folks have already taken them up on the offer, but others disapprove of the strategy.

"I'm sure this 'community' is a decent idea in some respects, and you can't blame them for wanting to profit on the fan-site phenomenon-they are a business, after all-but I wouldn't want to put our site there," Arnold said.

Ultimately, the fan-site phenomenon is not about marketing, publicity or intellectual-property rights. It's about fans creating ownership of the shows and movies they love. Rather than passively sitting in their living rooms, staring hypnotically at the glass teat, they're becoming participants in the creative process. That's not new-fans have been writing fiction and creating fan art for decades-but the Web has put creative control in the hands of thousands more. That's not something companies can control-not through legal threats, and not through tempting offers of free Web pages.

Get creative with Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.

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