Who owns fandom?

Independent Web sites devoted to pop culture icons like "The X-Files" and "Star Trek" used to flourish on the Net. Now they're an endangered species.

Published December 13, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

For Carol Burrell, running a Web site was just another step in a long life of sci-fi, fantasy and horror devotion. Her fannish enthusiasms began in early childhood, when family dinner was scheduled around "Star Trek" reruns and horror stories were read before bedtime.

The magic of these fantasy worlds proved alluring, but even more appealing for Burrell was the communal, participatory nature of fandom itself. "I wanted to be part of that world, the world that creates that kind of entertainment," says Burrell.

The Internet gave her the opportunity. By the early '90s, Burrell had already racked up a veritable checklist of geeky fandom qualifications: She chaired conventions, shot Super-8 films, edited zines and ran a dial-up BBS out of her home in Riverdale, N.Y. But the Internet, she found, proved an even more perfect outlet for her wide range of interests, as well as a natural way to unite the geographically disparate members of the fan community she so valued.

In 1993, Burrell created a series of Web sites with names like "Rat Patrol Fandom," "Elfquest Fandom" and, in 1995, the ever-popular "Xena Fandom," which, she says, "started taking over all of my server space." Inspired by the success of those sites, Burrell resolved to compile her fan devotions into a more comprehensive television site exploring cult series ranging from "Columbo" to "The Twilight Zone" to "Farscape." In July 2000, she chose what seemed a logical domain name for her new project: Fandom.tv.

Three months later, on Oct. 30, Burrell received a letter from the law firm Troop, Steuber, Pasich, Reddick and Tobey demanding the "unconditional surrender and transfer of the Infringing Domain Name" Fandom.tv; accusing her of violating the Anti-Cybersquatting Act (the punishment for which are fines up to $100,000 per domain name); and threatening immediate legal action. For good measure, they threw in a monetary offer: $250 if Burrell agreed to abandon the domain name immediately.

Cease-and-desist letters are not unusual in the world of fandom. Skirmishes between the holders of copyright and trademarks and overzealous fans constitute one of the longest ongoing stories in cyberspace. But the letter Burrell received offered a new twist. She had been hit, not by Fox or Universal or Disney, but by the legal representatives of Fandom.com, a Santa Monica, Calif., company whose slogan is "by the fans, for the fans."

Fandom.com serves as an umbrella site for numerous "fandomains" -- formerly independent Web sites dedicated to popular, merchandise-friendly topics such as "Star Wars," "The X-Files" and "Lord of the Rings" that now run under the Fandom.com banner. Each site contains the same structure and design, and there's a large copyright disclaimer placed at the bottom of every page. Fandom.com sites regularly use logos and photographs from various films or series and reprint copyrighted magazine articles.

The initial premise of Fandom.com was straightforward: to protect individual fan site owners from studio censorship (and sell a lot of nifty merchandise and advertising in the process). In the ecology of fandom, the idea seemed to have merit. One of the fundamental appealing aspects of the Internet for many fans lies in the fact that a community can form around even the most obscure of interests, like short-lived, long-since-canceled series such as "Space: Above and Beyond" or "American Gothic." An active community can produce Web sites, conventions, fan fiction and even fan films on its chosen topic in incredible profusion. What drives fans is passion, not solely for the product itself but for the ideas -- fantasy, utopianism, magic -- that those shows express.

But that passion often leads to confrontation between huge corporations and puny individuals. Which is why Fandom.com seemed to make sense -- by joining together the little guys, it would create an institution that could defend itself from the heavy hitters. But Fandom.com's letter to Burrell appeared to indicate something entirely different. Fandom.com was accusing Burrell of trademark violation -- a fact that was ironic on at least two levels. First: Fandom.com may not even own a trademark for the word "fandom." Second: A company whose individual sites flourished by pushing copyright laws to the legal limit was now turning around and itself playing the role of intellectual property bully.

Which leads to the question currently raging in the fan community: Who will protect the fans from Fandom?

Fandom.com is a far cry from the typical fanboy plugging away in his or her basement. Founded last year by Chip Meyers, formerly the head of Web production studio Centropolis Interactive, its CEO is Mark Young, the former vice president of sales and trading at Morgan Stanley. The Santa Monica company is backed by a large number of corporate investors and recently acquired the merchandise outlet Another Universe, adding to holdings that already include Cinescape, a small Chicago corporation that produces print film and television magazines, and Creation, a company that hosts and designs fan conventions.

But Meyers is adamant about selling Fandom.com as a down-home, low-key operation -- in contrast to the mega-businesses that control copyrights. "We are far from a big corporation," insists Meyers. "It was me sitting in my garage that arranged for all of the owners of the specific sites to join Fandom. Our first round of funding occurred in August 1999, and I was still in my garage." His inspiration for the company, he says, partly came out of his experiences with Centropolis.

"I oversaw many things [at Centropolis], but one I was especially proud of was Godzilla.com, which we set out to change the world with," he recalls, referring to the official site for the 1998 Emmerich-Devlin flop.

In 1997, Sony commissioned Meyers to create the official Web site for the movie. His goal was to make the world's most expensive fan site, a shrine to the king of monsters backed equally by fanboy devotion and studio dollars that would stand in contrast to the "clueless, cookie-cutter" official movie sites that had dominated the Web thus far.

When Sony launched the site a year in advance of the movie, his theory proved correct. "It was the most highly trafficked movie site of all time, and it was because it was truly a fan site," Meyers recalls. "But something happened along the way."

That something was the unfortunate fact that, as far as most site visitors were concerned, the Godzilla movie sucked. After disillusioned fans left messages cursing the film, Sony took action by shutting down the site's bulletin boards and censoring negative posts. The next month, says Meyers, "We lost 80 percent of our traffic [to] unofficial Web sites like [unofficial Godzilla site] Aaron's Monster Zero."

Meyers had a revelation: He would build a company that could offer protection to the sort of independent fan sites that were being bullied by studios. These new sites would have the gloss and glamour of corporate backing, but provide the kind of individual, homegrown appeal that had drawn Godzilla.com's visitors to the independent market.

Early on, Fandom.com moved to absorb the competition, recruiting even Monster Zero's Smith, whose posts were earlier censored on the Godzilla.com site. Smith's site, Monster Zero had also been shut down by Sony before becoming a safeguarded Fandom.com acquisition.

From then on, Fandom.com made it its mission to incorporate small fan sites and unite them under the fairly homogeneous Fandom.com umbrella. The group's formidable financial prowess has paid off nicely for its webmasters; in contrast to affiliate programs such as those offered by IGN or UGO, Fandom.com employees are given steady, salaried positions, cuts of merchandise revenue and stock in the parent company.

More important, the webmasters may also get the kind of legal protection against studios that smaller, independently run fan sites can't afford. Fandom.com representatives, including Meyers, refused to comment on what they called "confidential company information," but several webmasters for the company have spoken publicly on the subject.

Daniel Wood, an Australian college student, joined Fandom.com in late 1999 with his fan site, Ultimate X-Files Information Complex. He cited an increase in traffic and exposure as reasons for joining, but also "resistance from the Fox lawyers. Like someone said, join [Fandom.com] or be shut down."

According to Wood, Fandom.com doesn't just offer legal protection, it's also the fan equivalent of the big leagues. "Imagine, you're just a guy who runs a small X-Files site and suddenly this company wants you to run it for them, they're offering you a deal. Refusing it would be comparative to an aspiring actor refusing their first real break."

Fan sites run under the Fandom.com banner do tend to be more resilient in the face of network pressure than independent sites. The Simpsons Sourcebook, for example, received a Fox cease and desist order in August 1999 -- the first of three so far. Like all Fandom.com sites the Simpsons Sourcebook sells merchandise related to its topic, but, unlike many of its rivals, it has not been shut down. How is it surviving? By depending on the legal resources of its new corporate benefactor. Fandom.com approached John Fielder, the then 17-year-old owner of the site, in late 1999. The Sourcebook was relaunched under Fandom.com ownership that December. It received its next batch of cease and desist orders in the spring of 2000 -- orders that the Fandom.com lawyers eagerly battled on behalf of its underage proprietor.

(Fielder, it should be noted, is only one of many very young webmasters Fandom.com has hired; the company's "Pokémon" and Harry Potter sites are run by, respectively, a 14-year-old and a 13-year-old, and most of the Webmasters are under 25.)

It seems clear that some benefits are accruing to the webmasters who join Fandom.com. But does the tradeoff -- independence for protection, passion for profit -- run contrary to a movement that has long prided itself on idealism and ingenuity? Can fandom, both the word and the community, be co-opted by a corporate brand?

Though the dictionary definition of "fandom" dates the word back to 1903, it first gained prominence in the 1930s, when readers who had letters published in sci-fi and fantasy magazines began writing to each other. Soon fanzines appeared, monthly bulletins were issued and the first science fiction convention was held in Philadelphia in 1936.

The group later dubbed themselves "First Fandom" and declared goals that went beyond simple enthusiasm. "They believe that there is nothing greater than human imagination, and the diverting of such imagination into constructive channels," wrote "Amazing Stories" founder Hugo Gernsback of the group in 1934. "They believe that science fiction is something more than literature. They sincerely believe that it can become a world-force of unparalleled magnitude in time to come."

First Fandom's idealism may seem quaint today, but to Fandom.tv's Carol Burrell, it is the rule, and Fandom.com's commercial homogeneity is the exception. "I have all sorts of opinions about the participatory nature of television, how it can be considered the folklore of our times," she says. So-called genre fandom, therefore, promotes the view that all people have a stake in the storytelling, and corporate monoliths such as Fandom.com threaten not only individual freedom, but discourage the kind of creative discourse that has driven the fan community for decades.

"Once fandom was overwhelmingly optimistic and idealistic, perhaps too idealistic, with wild fancies about progress," wrote First Fandom member David A. Kyle in a 1986 Starlog magazine article celebrating the 50th anniversary of the group's inaugural convention. "For contemporary teenagers, there is a disturbing conflict between the visions of the naive past and cynical present." This discrepancy extends today to the Internet, where fans who find emotional resonance in genre entertainment watch their peers become increasingly co-opted by commercial organizations.

The evolution of Fandom.com may offer evidence that even its brand of midtier fandom proves that commerce and true fan sensibilities don't mix. Are Fandom.com sites really allowed to maintain their own originality and independence? That's something that Jane Carnall, a supporter of Burrell's campaign, has been wondering ever since her posts detailing the Fandom.tv trademark dispute were deleted from the Fandom.com message boards.

"I registered with Fandom.com on Nov. 21, 2000," says Carnall. "I posted a quick summary of the situation as it stood then to several message boards." Carnall returned the next day to find her posts removed and her registration revoked. She was miffed, but hardly surprised. "I've been in one kind of fandom or another since 1983," she says. "It's always impressed me, given what an anarchic and opinionated lot we all are, how much solidarity fandom has. We may seem to be a wide open and gullible market, but in fact we are merely ready to be pleased by what pleases us: not to be conned, and never to be bullied. I've seen some individuals, and a couple of organizations, make that mistake; Fandom, Inc. is just another one."

"In a way, [Fandom.com] is starting to remind me of the Borg," says Tim Hansen, who runs the independent "Star Trek" Web site Section31.com. "They won't be happy until they have everything under their control."

Hansen was first contacted by Fandom.com in January, when an angry e-mail arrived in his mailbox concerning a Ron Moore interview he had copied from Fandom.com and placed on his site -- a questionable but common practice. "I had credited them totally with link and title," he says. "To be honest, my site was getting nowhere near the traffic it is at this time, so this mail puzzled me. This was the first time any corporate news outlet had contacted me regarding a story I posted."

After visiting Fandom.com and finding, says Hansen, that sites included under its umbrella were also copying articles from other sources on a regular basis, Hansen grew annoyed. He prefaced the next installment of the Moore interview with his thoughts on the "corporate money hogging site."

Soon, another letter arrived. "The same person wrote back," he says. "He was mad I had gone public about the e-mail." Fandom.com's aversion to public disclosure of its actions appeared to highlight a breach between its outward, fan-friendly image and its actual corporate practices.

For Lynn Loschin, the lawyer representing Carol Burrell, Fandom.com's actions point to a larger and more disturbing trend affecting independent Web site owners. "We've heard a lot in the last year or two about 'cyber-squatting' registering famous trademarks as domain names for the purpose of reselling them for huge profits," she notes. "This is wrong and action has been taken to put a stop to it and to protect trademark owners. But we've heard substantially less about a parallel trend of wrongdoing -- 'cyber-bullying' -- by big corporations against individuals and small businesses."

Fandom.com, Loschin suggests, offers a classic example of such cyber-bullying -- and without any legal justification, to boot. According to the U.S. Patents and Trademarks office, Fandom.com's registration has the status "dead" and "abandoned." The company's claim on the word is tenuous at best, and to Burrell, symbolic of changing times. "Fandom.com feels a need to apply their own trademark and strictures on fannish activities," she says. "But what they want to restrict and trademark isn't even something they created themselves, but something created by fandom in general."

While Loschin feels confident about Burrell's case, she notes: "Not every smaller company has the resources to fight like they did, and a lot of them give up without a fight just because a corporation is bullying them. This is unfortunate, unfair and just wrong, and one of the reasons I wanted to help Carol."

But even if Fandom.com's legal threats prove toothless, for Burrell and other independent site owners who lack the monetary and legal resources to properly battle a cease-and-desist letter, such actions are often enough to put the survival of their sites in jeopardy. Additionally, Fandom.com's effort to shut down Burrell's site, as well as its aggressive pursuit and domination of other independent sites, works against all the diversity and independent spirit that characterizes genre fan culture.

As competing genre sites continue to merge -- recently, the Centropolis science fiction portal Mothership.com, home of Eon Magazine, was swallowed by Scifi.com along with prior acquisition Sci Fi Weekly -- the likelihood that individual site hosts can contend with corporate intervention dwindles. And since corporate entities like Fandom.com are primarily interested in profit, not fandom, the company's sites, say fans, are not only lacking in individuality, but also limited to only the most popular and merchandise-friendly of subjects. Meanwhile, sites like Burrell's, which cover a wide range of topics, some of them more cultish than mainstream, and which contain as much opinion as information, are fast becoming rarities.

"I hope that the Web, with its marvelous potential to give voice to individuals, won't turn into the private playground of companies," concludes Burrell, who has so far remained master of the Fandom.tv domain name despite a second legal threat (and an upped offer of $1,500).

"The Internet has made people aware that they are, in fact, part of something called fandom," says Burrell. "It has given the individual the power to shout out loud." But how long anyone will be able to hear those shouts, as corporations large and small press their claims on community feeling, is a question even the most fervent fan can't answer.

By Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is a New York writer.

MORE FROM Sarah Kendzior

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

Copyright Intellectual Property Star Trek The Simpsons