Wazzup, Elian!

An AP exec gets a lesson in Net-age protesting and backs down on threats against makers of an Elian parody, which contained photos from the Miami raid and voices from a Budweiser ad.

Published April 29, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

The Associated Press photo was splayed across newspapers and magazine covers across the nation -- little Elian, screaming with fear, as an FBI trooper points a gun in the direction of his head. Once the picture became a sensation, it was merely a matter of time before someone online turned it into a parody; and sure enough, someone did, animating the Elian photo to the soundtrack of the popular Budweiser "Wazzup!" commercial.

Within hours, the smart alecks behind the parody were engaged in a legal tiff with officials from the Associated Press, who forced them to take the site down. Now, however, the satirists appear to be winning concessions from a "chastened" AP.

On Tuesday night Sean Bonner, a 25-year-old Web designer for Playboy.com, and Chris Lathrop, a 33-year-old copywriter for the site, created the animation -- on their own time. It features a host of characters in the Elian saga -- including Elian, Fidel Castro, Janet Reno, second cousin Marisleysis Gonzalez and fisherman Donato Dalrymple -- greeting each other in the convivial, if guttural, slang ("So what's up, B.?" "Wazzup!") recognizable by Budweiser fans across the nation. (Other lighthearted online Elian parodies include a satirical Elian Web log and fake movie reviews "penned" by Elian Gonzalez.)

According to a story on Playboy.com, Bonner and Lathrop's handiwork received 600,000 hits by Wednesday night. Between Wednesday and Thursday the URL appeared in over 150 Usenet posts. Some 7,213 viewers took the time to vote on the movie's quality when it was displayed at newgrounds.com.

But the Associated Press was not amused. On Thursday, David Tomlin, assistant to the president at the Associated Press, e-mailed the two parodists from his Rockefeller Plaza office in New York, warning that they could be liable for copyright infringement fines and criminal penalties for their use of the photographs. Sounding a bit like Reno, Tomlin warned, "We'll go for whatever it takes to get our material out of your hands." Bonner took down the parody and displayed Tomlin's letter instead, on both his own Web design firm's site and on another Web site at GeoCities where he'd been mirroring it.

But Tomlin's letter galvanized its own intense display of public resistance. Tomlin received hundreds of phone calls and hundreds of e-mail messages defending the satirists' use of the photos. "We finally had to close [his e-mail account] to keep the incoming mail from overwhelming my system," Tomlin says, adding that he even received an anonymous death threat -- which he didn't take seriously.

Lathrop has found the wave of supporters heartening. "If they perceive it that way, they have every right to be angry about it," he says. "I think it's encouraging, just from a grass-roots standpoint."

And, although Tomlin points out that the AP does need to defend its intellectual property and is rarely pleased when its photos are doctored, he is now describing himself as "chastened" by the negative responses his letter provoked -- many of which took the AP to task for its hypocritical interpretation of First Amendment rights.

"We do care about free expression, and being in the position of seeming to suppress it is something that has given me some second thoughts about how we responded," Tomlin says. "I read my note on the Web now, it certainly looks every bit as heavy-handed as some of my critics have said it was. I don't think that's the right way to start a thoughtful debate about what's appropriate and what's not."

Tomlin also admits that it's difficult to protect a digital image that can be endlessly copied by online fans. "Right now, obviously, if there's a communal will on the Internet to display this material, it's going to get displayed," he shrugs.

And sure enough, on Thursday afternoon there was at least one Web site still mirroring the clip. In addition, the parodists sought protection from their employers at Playboy.com, who have agreed to display their satire in its entirety. "Our legal guy didn't seem worried about it," says Lathrop, "and quite frankly, if he's not worried about it, I'm not."

By David Cassel

David Cassel is an Oakland, Calif.-based freelance writer covering the Internet and popular culture.

MORE FROM David Cassel

Related Topics ------------------------------------------