Fandom.com Boycott Organised After Domain Name DisputeBy Amy
November 22, 2000 - 10:44 AM
Several years ago, Star Trek fandom was in uproar over the infamous 'Viacom letter campaign', in which Viacom's legal department sent out cease-and-desist letters to several popular fan sites, accusing them of violating Viacom's copyright over Star Trek. Sites affected include such notables as Psi Phi and Vidiot. What Viacom claimed was simply an attempt to protect Star Trek copyrights was viewed by the general Trek online community as an attack on the rights of the fans. In the end, the threat of legal action completely backfired, with the fans rebelling against the company and banding together, forming protest groups and boycotting what was then the Continuum - and the letters even became a mark of status in the Trek community. In the end, all that came of Viacom's attempts to control the Trek copyright was the alienation of the very thing that keeps Star Trek alive - the fans - and a severe loss of face. Now, a couple of years after the Viacom controversy, a new case has emerged which appears to be causing a similar amount of uproar as the Viacom campaign. This time, though, it's not just Trek that is involved - it's Fandom as a whole.
Originator of this new online controversy is not Viacom, but rather Fandom.com, a well-known science fiction site. Over the past year and a half, the site managed to establish itself as one of the most popular destinations for SF fans on the web, thanks both to its own content and thanks to the take-over of established SF sites AnotherUniverse and Cinescape. For Trek fans, the site has featured many in-depth interviews by people such as Anna L. Kaplan and Michelle Erica Green, while it also includes the popular Star Trek Fandomain, maintained by AntonyF. However, despite its company policy being that Fandom.com is "by the fans, for the fans", a recent action taken by the site has been taken by many people on the net as being aimed directly at the fans.
On October 31 of this year, fandom.tv, a site set up to provide webspace and e-mail for fans, received a letter from lawyer firm Troop, Steuber, Pasich, Reddick & Tobey, LLP, acting on behalf of Fandom.com. The letter, addressed to webmaster Carol Burrell, claimed that she had "improperly registered in the top level Tuvalu country code the domain name (Fandom.tv)", and demanded the "unconditional surrender and transfer of the Infringing Domain Name" under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. Fandom.com offered Burrell $250.00 US if she agreed to transfer the domain name. This sum was later bumped up to $1500 in a second letter received on November 15th, after the webmaster refused the first offer.
When asked for comment, Fandom.com representative Hillary Atkin explained the company's motives for trying to claim the Fandom.tv domain name: "Our company philosophy is 'by the fans, for the fans.' We are not some huge, bureaucratic corporate behemoth. We are a hard-working, entrepreneurial company with creative people who care about fans, founded just over a year ago with the goal of being the place to come for news, features, reviews, chats, community, contests and more. We do business under the name "Fandom.com" and I think that most reasonable people would agree that someone else operating a domain with a dot-tv suffix who is operating in the same space causes some confusion among our audience and concern for us. I don't think the folks at Yahoo would be very happy if someone else started running yahoo.tv."
Though it is understandable that Fandom.com would like to avoid confusion caused by other SF sites using a similar name, it is not clear whether this also gives the company the right to try and claim the domain name using the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. This is due to several factors, outlined below:
- 'Fandom' is a common word; it is in use by several other web sites and by the fannish community.
- The domain name was registered in July, and it can easily be demonstrated that the web site has been in use and preparations have been made for its further development. Because of this, it is difficult to see this as cyber-squatting.
- The webmaster has been using the word fandom for various activities since the 1970s.
- The domain has never been offered for sale.
- Fandom.com's letter on the 30th of October was the first notice Fandom.tv had from Fandom of any conflict.
Indeed, in an interview conducted by this site with Burrell, she said that this attitude was one of the reasons she originally refused the offer. She especially had objections to "the stipulation that I (and anyone associated with me) never use the word fandom in a domain name again -- whether it be "mediafandom.com" or "radiofreefandom.net" or "ratpatrolfandom.tv" or any other phrase. I find such a stipulation to be enormously unfair and unrealistic. It's strikingly anti-fandom for a corporation to desire to restrict the community's own use of the word that "is" the community. I also object to the tone of the letters, which did not put me in a mood to consider any offer. I've since been told that the threatening stance and repeated accusations are really just standard legal language."
This legal language certainly didn't help Burrell in feeling any more inclined to consider Fandom.com's offer, as she mentions in her account of how she first reacted when she received the letter. "My first reaction was, to be honest, to be worried. This has nothing to do with a feeling of being right or wrong -- only with the knowledge that, once a corporation sends out its lawyers, the outcome might hinge entirely on who can afford the most in legal fees. Once I got over that, I was angry at the accusations in the letter. I went online to look at their site and do some investigation. Then I calmed down (a little) and phoned their lawyer. The phone call didn't resolve anything, so I went online again to various sites, beginning with Sting.com (I had heard about the webmaster's domain name dispute) and following the link there to MyDomainDispute.com -- a site that gives advice on the proper response to such a letter. I read ICANN's policy on domain name disputes, then wrote a short reply to Fandom.com's lawyers about the fair use of the word and the good faith registration of the domain name. I wrote that I hoped we could end the matter there."
Unfortunately for Burrell, this is not exactly what happened. "When the second letter appeared on the doorstep, I had hopes it would be along the lines of "sorry to have bothered you" -- perhaps with a request for me to put a disclaimer on my front page. The second letter was, in my opinion, written in a much more threatening tone, although they did increase the amount of their unsolicited offer to purchase the domain name to an amount they judged to be less than the costs of arbitration. I did more research on cases that have gone to arbitration, reading the findings in each in detail, but I was beginning to feel very overwhelmed. I decided to ask friends on a mailing list for advice and a little moral support." (More from Burrell can be found in our interview with the Fandom.tv webmaster)
Reacting to this plea for support on the mailing list, many fans came together to organise a protest campaign against Fandom.com. Letters have been cropping up all over the 'net, in newsgroups, on bulletin boards, mass-emails and on websites, imploring people to boycott Fandom and it's related sites, while showing support for the fandom.tv domain. Everyone from 'Space, Above and Beyond' to 'X-Files' to 'Godzilla' appears to be in on the boycott, with copies of the letter appearing so far at rec.arts.sf.fandom, alt.tv.x-files, alt.startrek.creative and alt.tv.star-trek.voyager. (A copy of the letter can be found here.)
The organiser of the boycott, 'Fox', told us she wasn't surprised by the speed at which this boycott had spread. "Surprised? By the speed, no. In this online world, word travels pretty fast. By the level, a bit. I sent my call for a boycott to six or seven different lists, but with significant overlap -- I figure I may have hit as many as 1500 mailboxes, but that's a generous estimate based on vague knowledge of membership numbers on those lists and no knowledge at all of everyone's delivery status. Several people replied quickly to ask if they could pass the message along, but once I'd said that was cool, I had no idea where it was going. You may have gotten the thing from someone who got it from me, or it may have gone through the theoretical six degrees of separation. We're getting exponential. :-)" (More background information on why the boycott was organised can be found in our interview with Fox)
The boycott has also attracted the attention of several web sites, including of course this site, and web magazine 'The 11th Hour', which posted its own article on the issue. In addition, some of the operators of Fandom's own Fan Domains already heard about the letter, including AntonyF at Star Trek Central: "I first heard of the letter when a visitor of my site told me, that was the first I heard of it. Literally minutes later, someone else sent me a message to the same effect, so it obviously did the circuits somewhere and then they informed me."
Antony of course couldn't comment on the legal side of this, as he only does the Star Trek domain at the site, but he did point out a downside of a possible Fandom.com boycott: the fact that the Fandomain operators will be caught in the middle. "I hope people remember we are fans ourselves, running many domains about our favorite shows. I think if someone has a genuine complaint, then by all means it should be said to Fandom, and they will listen. I make no claims on what is right and wrong, it's not my place to do so. I just hope people continue to visit our domains, as we all--as fans--put a lot of work into them on a daily basis for other fans." (Our full interview with Antony can be found by following this link.)
Meanwhile, what exactly will happen next remains uncertain, with the boycott movement gaining momentum with each passing hour. The ball, however, is back in Fandom.com's court, and how they react to the mounting pressure to cease and desist their actions will determine the course of the conflict. At the moment, the site appears to have two options: continue with its legal action and risk alienating much of fandom from itself, or work with Carol Burrell of Fandom.tv to try and come to a more peaceful solution.
Fortunately, Fandom.com representative Hillary Atkin did indicate to us that the site would be open to the more peaceful road. "I think we all know that lawyers can be very heavy-handed, as opposed to looking for ways to amicably resolve a situation. That's how they make their living. We make ours by being the trusted source for fans in this space. We would be open to some sort of conciliatory way to work with the person who bought the fandom.tv domain." However, as Atkin herself said, lawyers can be very heavy-handed at times and Fandom.tv webmaster Burrell believes that, despite what she has heard about the company comprising of nice and reasonable people, there is still a good chance the lawyers will go through with their threat of legal action. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail, and Fandom.com and Fandom.tv will be able to reach an agreement without all the negative attention that such legal action would attract.
It can be safely said that many communities around the internet will be following this case with interest, from the fans themselves to the big media companies online. With so much so much of the law regarding the internet being a tangled and confusing mess, it's hard to determine just exactly who is in the right in a case such as this – but we can probably also safely say that any decision made here and now will be likely to have lasting repercussions on how similar situations are dealt with in the future. In the meantime, however, we can but wait and hope for a peaceful resolution to the satisfaction of not only Fandom.com and Carol Burrell, but the internet community as a whole.