Heather Lawver is a passionate Harry Potter fan and an advocate for free speech on the Internet, and as the senior strategist for the group Defense Against the Dark Arts she is leading a worldwide protest against Warner Bros..
She is also 16 years old.
At issue is action Warner Bros. has taken against young fans who posted Harry Potter fan sites. The sites extol the virtues of Potter and encourage people to read the books by J.K. Rowling. And they were created by the very readers who funnel huge amounts of allowance dollars to the copyright holder, Warner Bros..
But the corporate giant decided these sites violated copyright and sent letters to the domain registrants, calling for them to immediately hand over the URLs. One such request was made of Claire Field of West Yorkshire, England, who runs the site www.harrypotterguide.co.uk. Unsure what to do, Claire and her father hired the Prettys Solicitors law firm. According to a Feb. 21 statement from Prettys, Field did not wish to give up the domain, and negotiations with Warner Bros. had collapsed.
A statement from Warner Bros., dated the next day, has this to say: “Warner Bros. wishes to make it clear that at no time has it ever threatened to either close down Claire Field’s website nor take any legal action against her…Warner Bros. genuinely admires and encourages fans to design and run their ‘Harry Potter’ websites. However, to protect this property and to ensure that these sites are not run for commercial gain and, equally if not more importantly, do not contain offensive or harmful material which could offend young readers, Warner Bros. has asked for the originators to transfer the registration of their domain names to the Company. This protects the property of fans while simultaneously allowing the original site creators to continue to run their websites freely and without intervention.”
Now, I am not a lawyer and I’m sure the author of that statement was, but it seems that you cannot promise not to intervene in a site’s content at the same time as you take legal responsibility for that site. That would make you liable for the actions of others.
Fortunately, the Field case has a happy outcome. A Prettys Solicitors’ statement dated March 9 announced that Warner Bros. is “prepared now to rely on Claire’s good faith and her assurance that she has no plans other than to continue her present non-commercial use of the domain name. As a result it no longer seeks the transfer of the domain name.”
Score one for the little guys. However, according to Lawver, the battle is still on. As of press time, she reports Warner Bros. is still pursuing other domain names and has not returned those it appropriated. The Defense Against the Dark Arts is calling for a boycott of all Warner Bros. Potter-related merchandise. Check them out at www.dprophet.com/dada/.
So why should you, an IT professional, care about all this? Because it speaks to freedom of speech in a medium that you not only helped create but upon which your business increasingly depends.
Few argue that freedom of speech should be completely unfettered. For example, sites which promote hatred are undesirable. Also, some people cyber squat on names that rightfully belong to others. For example, Celine Dion just had www.celinedion.com returned to her by the UN World Intellectual Property Organization. In its ruling, the group said Jeff Burgar of High Prairie, Alta., had failed to prove he was running “an established fan club or, for that matter, a site for criticism or satire.” In other words, he was sitting on the site until someone paid him for it.
This is not true of Lawver and the others, for whom these sites are clearly on-line fan clubs, and it would be interesting to see the UN rule on Warner Bros.’ actions.