Dr. Laura, how could you?

Copyright war rages over moralist talk-show host's nude photos.

By Patrizia DiLucchio

Published November 3, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The scenario inspires dija vu: a well-known figure, caught at the center of an Internet sex scandal, follows up a public denial by a courtroom-mandated confession. Dr. Laura Schlessinger -- talk radio phenomenon and morality maven to the masses, whose syndicated show receives upward of 60,000 phone calls a day from listeners seeking her counsel on subjects such as premarital sex, fidelity and the importance of being a stay-at-home mom -- had been caught with her pants down. Literally. True, the resulting photographs were ancient history, 20 years old or more. But suddenly they were on dozens of Web pages and newsgroups across the Net. How was the best-selling author of "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives" going to spin this?

It all began on Oct. 19, when Web-porn giant Internet Entertainment Group (IEG), which previously made headlines with the Pamela and Tommy Lee honeymoon sex tapes, posted a dozen pictures purporting to be Schlessinger on its ClubLove Web site. The photos -- taken by Schlessinger's mentor, California radio personality Bill Ballance -- displayed a sportive, 20-something Dr. Laura in various stages of undress, including one classic open-legged money shot. To enhance viewing pleasure, IEG offered "Live Picture Technology," enabling users to zoom in on specific body parts. As Seth Warshavsky, the entrepreneur behind IEG, boasted on the site, "You can point your arrow on any part of her body and blow it up to full size!"

When approached by the New York Post's Page Six soon after the photos surfaced, a spokesperson for Schlessinger refused comment, noting only that the radio personality would not have anything to say about the photos because there were no photos -- though if there were photos, then most likely they were fakes. Then, only a few hours after ClubLove posted the full-color pix, Schlessinger's lawyers slapped IEG with a temporary restraining order -- citing copyright violations.

For, it turns out, the young woman wearing a smile and little else in the 20-year-old pictures is indeed the current radio queen of family values. Schlessinger's representatives did not return my phone calls, but Schlessinger's spokeswoman at Premiere Radio Networks confirmed the fact in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week: "They are genuine," said Keven Bellows. "We wouldn't be suing . . . if that were not the case."

If her radio faithful failed to see Dr. Laura in the buff at ClubLove, they've certainly had plenty of opportunities to do so since. "The Dirty Dozen," as IEG dubbed the photos, have been popping up on pages all over the Web like mushrooms after an Oregon rainstorm. And, almost as quickly, IEG's lawyers have been shutting those sites down.

In other words, while Dr. Laura is suing IEG for violating her copyright, IEG is going after others on the Net for violating its copyright. For the time being, at least, Dr. Laura and IEG are complicitous -- though while the former wants to quash the pictures entirely, the latter is merely trying to control their distribution. "We shut those sites down," says Warshavsky. "We own the copyright to those photos and we intend to protect that copyright. If anyone, including Dr. Laura herself, tries to print those pix, we will shut them down."

As ludicrous as the image may be of Dr. Laura and IEG tag-teaming the Net to nuke amateur pornographers' sites, there are some interesting legal issues involved in their tug of war. Typically, the creator of content (such as a photograph) owns the rights to that content -- with certain exceptions: There are limitations, for example, on a person's right to own the image of another. While these limitations often have been interpreted leniently when that image is of a public figure, the fact remains that Laura Schlessinger was not a public figure when the photographs were taken. U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson began hearing IEG's arguments on Monday in Los Angeles -- and late Monday IEG said that the court had lifted its restraining order, freeing the company to publish the photos once more.

It remains to be seen how long IEG will be able to fight the Web to assert its copyright. The Internet is vast, and presumably the Schlessinger pictures are already nestled on 10,000 hard drives on 1,000 servers all over the world. It's one thing to suppress a Web page; it's much harder to smother Usenet. Schlessinger pictures are currently a must-see in newsgroups ranging from alt.radio.talk.dr-laura to alt.sex.binaries. DejaNews searches will track them for years to come. For his part, Warshavsky admits that Schlessinger's pictures have a finite shelf life as far as the cyber-sex biz is concerned: "How long will they be a hot item? Couple of weeks, maybe?"

If there are things to be learned from the low-rent scandal swirling around Schlessinger and her pictures, they aren't instructive parables of hubris ` la Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd," or even the common garden-variety lessons associated with the occasional television evangelist gone astray. Schlessinger's own gospel holds that people can and do change, and she has allowed that she wasn't always the paragon of virtue that she is today.

"With the mindset I have now, there are certain things I would not have done," she admitted in a September 1998 profile that appeared in Vanity Fair. "I am repentant; I have moved on; I see no reason to embarrass myself." The same "Death of Outrage" that GOP partisan William Bennett has so deplored in examining public reaction to the recent White House sex scandal also presumes that Dr. Laura's legions of admirers will either forgive her, too -- or just not care.

No, the lessons here have more to do with technology and how the Web has accelerated the nature of scandal. Scandals no longer brew while awaiting the next issue of a tabloid paper -- nor do they afford the parties involved the time to address basic legal issues like copyright before they explode across the Internet. And once they are out there, they never really go away. Even if Schlessinger is successful in asserting her copyright claims, her 12 photographs will forever be a part of the Net's lore -- and its pornographic archives.

Patrizia DiLucchio

Patrizia DiLucchio is a writer who lives in Monterey, Calif.

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