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'Cyber-Pirates' Targeted by Capitol Compromise

Internet: House will act on 'cyber-squatting,' in which speculators register famous addresses, then try to sell them. Issue triggered feud inside Hollywood.

October 26, 1999|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to rescue Hollywood from speculators who buy up famous names and hold them for ransom in cyberspace.

As early as today, the House plans to clip the growing practice of "cyber-squatting," in which a coveted Internet address is registered for $70 and then offered for sale to the rich or famous for sums reaching into the millions.

"It's extortion," said Margaret Cone, who represents a coalition of performers. "First they take your name. Then you get a letter saying you can have your name back--for a million dollars. It's a shakedown."

The legislation--similar to a bill already passed by the Senate--would extend existing copyright law to the Internet by preventing such squatters from commandeering studio and celebrity names. It would curtail a trend that lately has Tinseltown up in arms:

The address http://www.BradPitt.com opens with the unabashed solicitation--"This domain is for sale. . . . State your offer!" Three New York men tried to sell USA Networks Inc. chief Barry Diller an address bearing his name for $10 million. And studios cannot stay ahead of cunning squatters who buy up cyber-addresses for movies that have yet to be written, such as "Mission Impossible 3."

Although studios and celebrities are equally tormented by cyber-pirates, they have been fighting each other recently when the bill resurrected a skirmish as old as the industry itself: Who "owns" a celebrity image, the studio or the star?

In a rare twist, a lately antagonistic Washington played peacemaker to Hollywood, cobbling a compromise that managed not to send anyone storming out of the room.

Few corporations register more Internet addresses than movie studios, which set up sites for even the most obscure films, actors and characters. And few things are more valuable to a celebrity than a name.

"These guys always fight over money, screen credit, how big the credits are," said one studio executive. "As long as there is money involved, they will always disagree."

The industry civil war exploded on Capitol Hill this month when it became clear that both the Senate and House versions of the bill would have protected studios--not to mention other corporate victims like Wendy's and McDonald's--from cyber-piracy but did not explicitly shield celebrities whose names are not, as a rule, trademarks.

When lawyers and lobbyists for the stars tried to get their clients covered by the legislation, The Walt Disney Co. balked. The other major studios supported Disney, arguing that protecting big names on the net could cramp their style the next time they want to make a movie called "Nixon" or "Hoffa" and set up a Web site by the same name.

"We might want to do a film someday about Saddam Hussein and call the Web site Saddam Hussein.com. And we don't want to have to go to Saddam and ask for his permission," one studio lobbyist grumbled.

In vintage Hollywood style they slugged it out--corporate vs. talent--in star-studded Washington negotiating sessions, arguing the existential question of what right a famous person has to his name.

Barbra Streisand weighed in. Singers Bonnie Raitt, Billy Joel and the Eagles' Don Henley sent a letter to Capitol Hill asking for relief.

"Hollywood's liberalism ends at the studio gates. It's a very greedy place," said one industry lobbyist. "The studios come to Washington. They do a grab. If the talent comes in and wants even 5%, they balk."

But it was Washington lawmakers who cobbled a truce--particularly Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale), who sponsored the legislation, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills) and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), himself a victim of cyber-squatting.

The compromise language expressly forbids registering "a famous personal name" as an Internet domain if the buyer has "unfair" intentions, such as selling it for profit, using it for pornography or misleading the public by falsely suggesting celebrity endorsement.

Just what constitutes a famous name would be subject to interpretation by the courts in keeping with standards in effect since 1943. Anyone who happened to share the name Julia Roberts and wanted to register a domain by that name, for example, would not be in violation of the law, officials said.

Celebrities can be particularly vulnerable to piracy because those who refuse to pay the money to retrieve their cyber-addresses--known as domains--have no control over the content. Until recently, http://www.SharonStone.com clicked viewers over to a pornographic site, whereas http://www.TomHanks.com links to a tabloid-like page of unauthorized celebrity gossip.

But attorneys argued that cyber-squatters also defraud the public by suggesting that celebrities have somehow endorsed a product or cause that they may know nothing about, the lawyers argued.

Parents do not "want their 12-year-old kid signing on for information about Brad Pitt and getting a pornographic site," said Floyd Mandell, a Chicago trademark lawyer involved in the negotiations. "Even the studios don't want that."

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