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Hollywood Girding for Assault of the Internet

December 5, 1996

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Two and a half years ago, Jason Ruspini, a self-proclaimed ``member of the Star Wars generation,″ paid his beloved saga the ultimate high-technology tribute: He designed and posted a Star Wars Web site.

Fans loved the page; Lucasfilm, which owns the rights to ``Star Wars,″ did not. With devotees dropping in at a rate of up to 40,000 per day, Lucasfilm made a discreet phone call to the University of Pennsylvania student.

``They nicely asked me to shut it down, with the implication that if I didn’t they would bring in a lawyer or something,″ said Ruspini, now 21. ``It was a total surprise.″

What happened next, though, apparently came as a total surprise to Lucasfilm, the San Rafael, Calif.-based company owned by ``Star Wars″ creator George Lucas.

Lucasfilm was about to learn the hard way what the rest of Hollywood is just beginning to understand: that ownership on the Web may be one of the prickliest problems facing copyright law since the codes were written years ago.

Ruspini posted excerpts on the Web site of his conversation with a Lucasfilm executive. Outraged ``Star Wars″ devotees vented their furor on Lucasfilm. Ruspini says they flooded the company with angry e-mails, demanding to know how it could presume to assert such totalitarian control over a product some fans had woven into the very fabric of their lives.

Four months after the January 1996 phone call to Ruspini, Lucasfilm backed down. In a letter posted on Ruspini’s Web site, the company apologized for apparent ``miscommunication″ and vowed to develop a Web policy soon.

``Technology is advancing fast enough to worry about copyrights of film now,″ said John Raffetto, a spokesman for the Creative Incentive Coalition, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group representing the movie industry.

Hollywood is in a dither over the possibility that its greatest asset _ motion pictures _ is easily available, for free, to anyone with a sufficiently powerful computer and an Internet account.

Industry executives say current copyright law cannot protect them from rampant piracy _ they need precision-sharp technologies and enhanced legislation to block limitless video reproduction in cyberspace.

This call to action has incited its share of controversy; as the industry pushes for legislative changes on Capitol Hill, it’s run up against law professors, librarians and movie fans who call the new copyright proposals a covert grab for control of now-public information.

``It really violates the entire nature of the copyright law,″ said Karen Coyle, a library automation specialist with the University of California, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. ``(The law) wasn’t intended to restrict access. The idea was if people had control (over the science and arts they produced) they would want to publish their information. It is not intended to restrict.″

But the studios say they are genuinely concerned about the future.

``The Internet is an amazing phenomenon that creates opportunities and issues to which we are all responding,″ said Richard Glosser, the vice president of interactive programming at Sony Pictures. ``We’ll do what we can to protect ourselves. We’ll do our best.″

The industry is fighting back on two fronts, the hi-tech and the legislative.

In the technology field, movie-makers _ concerned that one day soon computer users will be able to easily download and view entire videos _ are actively encouraging the development of protection devices.

In one scenario, distributors would make movies available via the Internet for a fee, but rig the system so that each downloaded film could not be copied and used by someone else’s computer.

In Washington, entertainment lobbyists are joining forces with their counterparts in the music, publishing and software industries to push for updated copyright laws, specifically prohibiting piracy in cyberspace and slapping offenders with up to $250,000 in fines, and five years in jail.

``I think a lot of people right now believe anything on the Internet is free and up for grabs,″ Raffetto said. ``(People seem to think) if you can get it on the Internet, you’re free of copyright law.″

Ruspini, the ``Star Wars″ Web site creator, was not one of those people. He knew that even current copyright law gives intellectual property owners like Lucasfilm rights on the Internet. But he went ahead with his site anyway, he says, figuring the worst they could do was order him to shut down.

Today, Lucasfilm has no official comment on the debacle, other than the statement the company posted last spring in an attempt to staunch the burgeoning ill will.

``We are sorry for any confusion that may have emerged from any miscommunication on our part,″ the company wrote in its notice, which called fans ``an important part of our `Star Wars’ family″ and included a promise to develop Internet guidelines.

Different companies are taking various routes towards self-protection on the Web.

Disney, known for zealously guarding its trademarked property, appears to have adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards Web replication, permitting even such extensive copying as ``Christy’s Disney Images Page″ with its sketches of everything from Aladdin to Winnie the Pooh. The studio itself refused to comment.

Conversely, Paramount has cracked down on ``The Unofficial Brady Bunch Page,″ demanding the creator remove some images and sound clips, and on numerous Star Trek fans for printing synopses of the plot of the just-released, latest installment in the film series.

The studios’ stern reactions to what are largely fan memorials have left some Web site creators complaining publicly. Jeanette Foshee, a fan of the Fox TV show ``The Simpsons,″ received a ``cease and desist″ letter from the network after executives noticed her Simpson icons scattered across various Web sites.

``The letter was pretty aggressive and hostile,″ Foshee, of Boone, Iowa, wrote in an e-mail posted on ``The Simpsons Archive″ Web site. ``I was giving them free publicity. But I guess this is part and parcel of the way things are done today.″

A Fox spokesman, requesting anonymity, responded: ``It’s not our intention to shut down bona fide fan Web sites. It is our intention to insist that all Web sites meet guidelines that protect the creative integrity of the programs they represent.″

Devotees’ wails notwithstanding, the entertainment industry is plunging ahead into the murky waters of Internet property. Studio executives and their Washington lobbyists fret that if they fail to take a stand in these early days, they may fritter away their copyright and wake one day to find they have no stand to take.

``A new magic technology avalanche is about to hit us,″ said Jack Valenti, the president and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America. ``I don’t know where it’s going, but before it gets there, there have to be what I call rules of the highway.″

Because, he continued, ``if you can’t protect what you own, you don’t own anything.″

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