WEEKLY WEB WATCH: Moves to shut down fan sites could result in PR headaches

There used to be a rather charming Web site dedicated to the teenage wizard Harry Potter, hero of the best selling Harry Potter children’s book series written by JK Rowling. At least, the site was there until about a week ago. If any unsuspecting child, parent or Harry Potter fan were to type www.harrypotterisawizard.co.uk into their browser now, all they would get is a site promoting forthcoming Warner Bros. movie releases in the US.

There used to be a rather charming Web site dedicated to the teenage wizard Harry Potter, hero of the best selling Harry Potter children’s book series written by JK Rowling. At least, the site was there until about a week ago. If any unsuspecting child, parent or Harry Potter fan were to type www.harrypotterisawizard.co.uk into their browser now, all they would get is a site promoting forthcoming Warner Bros. movie releases in the US.

There used to be a rather charming Web site dedicated to the

teenage wizard Harry Potter, hero of the best selling Harry Potter

children’s book series written by JK Rowling. At least, the site was

there until about a week ago. If any unsuspecting child, parent or Harry

Potter fan were to type www.harrypotterisawizard.co.uk into their

browser now, all they would get is a site promoting forthcoming Warner

Bros. movie releases in the US.



Huh? No mention of Harry Potter? Nope. About the nearest you’ll get to

Harry Potter is some leftover promotion for one of last year’s hit

movies, The Iron Giant.



Now, The Iron Giant is a fine film, but it’s not likely to satisfy

anyone looking for Harry Potter.



The reason is that Warner Bros. has bought the movie rights to the first

two of the three Harry Potter books and has decided that any associated

domain names are rightfully the property of Warner Bros. And what else

is a poor old just-taken-over corporation to do but send in the lawyers,

giving Nicholas Mitchell, the site’s creator, 14 days to hand over the

domain name. And given that Mitchell is simply a fan of the books and

not making any money from the site, what could he do but comply.



Companies face a difficult decision in dealing with fan Web sites. They

can be a tremendous asset, as they are created by your most enthusiastic

followers. They are not only your best customers but also the ones who

will spread the word on your behalf, freely and willingly doing the same

work that it would take countless advertising and PR dollars to do. Get

on the wrong side of them, however, and they can also be your worst

enemies.



Somebody who spends their time nurturing a site like

Harrypotterisawizard.co.uk could very easily start devoting his energies

to WarnerBrosSucks.com.



Of course, if companies fail to vigorously protect their trademarks and

intellectual property, courts will take any attempt to do so in the

future less seriously.



But Warner’s handling of the whole thing seems particularly heavy-handed

for a number of reasons. The company has offended not only the creator

of the site but also the respectable following the site built up in the

few months that it was going. Not only is there nothing about Harry

Potter on the site when you key in that address; there is not even a

word of explanation why you have landed somewhere completely different

from where you were expecting. There is not a hint of a forthcoming

Harry Potter movie.



There is a better way to handle fan sites. That is to protect vigorously

certain key trademarks while letting fan sites use related words or

phrases in their names, to allow them the freedom to thrive and work on

your behalf.



There are few better examples than Lucasfilm’s handling of the many Star

Wars fan sites. Lucasfilm owns Starwars.com, yet allowed fan sites such

as www.jedinet.com, and www.theforce.net to help build an online frenzy

of anticipation for the release of Episode I.



Warner Bros. could have done the same with Harry Potter. But that will

never happen as long as cold-hearted lawyers are the company’s preferred

way of dealing with the people who could be its strongest PR

weapons.





- Stovin Hayter is editor-in-chief of Revolution, scheduled to launch in

March. He can be contacted at stovin.hayter@revolutionmagazine.com.



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