If this were a Fox reality TV show, they‘d call it When Good Web Sites Go Bad. For the last three years, fans of the teen-oriented WB hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been building an online community of cooperative fan sites with evocative names like “Domain of the Slain” and “Raven’s Realm,” where people made friends, wrote original fiction inspired by the show or buzzed about the latest episode. In order to bond and relive their favorite Buffy moments, fans availed themselves of screen grabs, video and audio clips, and sundry other samplings from the show itself.
But then the Troubles came. Last year, 20th Century Fox, creator of Buffy (the Fox show airs on the WB, owned by supposedly competing conglomerate Time Warner), began issuing “cease and desist” orders to fan sites on the grounds that their use of clips, images and even transcripts constituted copyright infringement. “Alexander,” who had painstakingly transcribed episodes and posted them at his Slayer‘s Fanfic Archive, had to remove his script files after Fox threatened him with legal action. Other sites were shut down completely or forced to radically deplete their content. Since the Fox campaign began, the plight of the online Buffy community, and the members’ journey from fear to defiance, illustrates, above all, the perils of deriving one‘s identity from a corporate-held commodity.
Upon first hearing of Fox’s clampdown on unofficial fan-site content, the reaction of these simple WB fans (boys and girls in the high-consumption 13-to-23 age demographic) was profound disbelief: How could Fox, the very entity that had created Buffy, be restricting their freedom to worship it? “Solo84,” Webmaster of The New BuffyGiles Relationshippers site (www.bgshippers.com), framed her plaint in classic Book of Job fashion. “We support them and still they wound us. Why does it hurt so bad?” The answer is that 20th Century Fox is a somewhat schizophrenic a deity whose hip cultural productions often belie a frothier corporate interest in copyright and intellectual-property control. Really, Fox is all about mixed messages. It is, lest we forget, the same studio that postponed last season‘s supposedly violent Buffy finale in response to the Columbine shootings, and then proceeded to release last year’s most violent mainstream film, Fight Club, in which the main character frees himself from demasculinizing debt by blowing up the corporate headquarters of all three major credit-card companies and TRW.
Fox has been quite consistent, however, in its copyright policing of the Net. Since 1997, fan sites of other Fox shows — including The X-Files, The Simpsons, Futurama and Millennium — were given the “cease and desist” treatment, and Buffy (as well as the Buffy spinoff show Angel) was simply next on the list. As president of Fox TV Doug Herzog stated recently, “It‘s always nice to see fans passionate and getting behind shows, but at the same time, these are characters and trademarks that belong to someone else. So it’s not exactly all kosher.”
It‘s interesting that Herzog used the word kosher, given that this issue is really about who gets to set the terms of Buffy worship — Fox or its fans. In any case, Fox is also acting on demands by Hollywood unions like the Screen Actors Guild, whose executive director, Leonard Chassman, noted in early February, “The studios have an obligation to negotiate with our members individually if their images and performances are going to be used in anything other than the film they were originally employed in.”
Given their amateur vampire-slaying credentials, it’s not surprising that Buffy-philes‘ reactions to Fox’s campaign mutated from bruised consternation to bloodthirsty defiance almost overnight. Solo84, who prefers to cloak her anonymity behind an online handle (but who revealed to the L.A. Weekly that she‘s 17 and lives in Los Angeles), proceeded to form a resistance group called the Buffy Bringers. Currently boasting 379 members, the Bringers are decidedly “media-savvy,” a term that usually means knowing the media is exploiting you but not knowing what to do about it. The predominantly teenage Bringers, however, possess a rather canny understanding of media and corporate-power dynamics. They’ve launched a letter-writing campaign to the studio, to TV and newspaper editors, and to Fox‘s advertisers. The template letter to media editors, located at www.slayme.combringersletter.htm, casts the Bringers as defenders of free expression, pointing out that “the broader media, which has certainly had its share of corporate efforts to infringe upon its First Amendment rights, should take notice.”
Meanwhile, Angela Diprima, whose Scenes From the Slayer site was also threatened with legal action by Fox, has organized a National Blackout Day on May 13, during which dozens of TV-related fan sites will go blank to protest Fox’s actions. Not big fans of secrecy, the “Operation: Blackout” plan of action, available at www.geocities.comspookywebabout.html, bluntly lays out the rationale of the coming campaign. “In my honest opinion, still images, sound files and video clips are the Internet equivalent of quotes. As long as credit is given (like the disclaimers) everything should be happy and cool. The shutting down of the sites for the day will show Fox what the end result would be: a drab and lifeless Internet.”
This line of attack is quite a gamble: What if Fox wants a drab and lifeless Internet, as a casual visit to its Starbucks-inspired official Buffy site might indicate? “Operation: Blackout” is also disseminating protest banners for those in solidarity (for a real Resistance flavor, download the banner at the French “Operation: Blackout” site at www.ifrance.combuffysfire blackout); they read, “Ils ont fait QUOI?! Mechante, Fox, Mechante!” (translation: “They did WHAT?! Bad, Fox, bad!”)
Still, some fans are asking whether going offline to protest being shut down isn‘t like trying to stop someone from killing you by attempting suicide. Cinka’s post on the “Operation: Blackout” message board insists, “You‘re giving Fox exactly what they want. I suggest that if you really want to make a fuss, do what hackers do and just keep moving your site . . . when they ask you to take it down, say O.K. and move.” Whether or not this online Viet Cong approach will win out, the Buffy Resistance appears to be entering a more active phase of political engagement. The latest plan hatched by the Buffy Bringers is Fanstock 2000, set tentatively for June 17–19, in which sci-fi fans of every ilk who’ve been hassled by the copyright-infringement Man will descend on their local WB affiliates, in L.A. and other cities, in a show of force.
Should the networks take this seriously? Well, let‘s just say that the protest memo suggests that “you might want to consider dressing as your favorite character.” Cops beating up on teenagers dressed as vampire slayers? That may be just the PR coup the Bringers are looking for.