Epitome hits the fan
>> Degrassi devotee fights to hold on to his Web domains
by NAOMI BLOCH
Last fall, Web-porn entrepeneur Dan Parisi lost the right to publish his triple-X skin site at http://www.madonna.com after an international arbitration panel ruled that Parisi had profited unfairly on the back of illustrious ray of light Madonna. The case was certainly not the only celebrity cyber-dispute; Julia Roberts and Isabelle Adjani have won similar claims, while the unhappy Buddhist Sting lost his claim for http://www.sting.com.
Now, north of the 49th parallel, a Canadian-scale controversy is brewing, pitting the producers of the teen angst Degrassi TV shows against some hardcore Degrassi fans.
When Mark Polger first launched his Degrassi fan site back in 1997, Degrassi had been off the air for five years, and nobody seemed to care that he had registered degrassi.ca, degrassi.org and a number of other Degrassi-related domain names for personal use. However, with last summer’s announcement of an upcoming TV movie and possible series, Degrassi: The Next Generation, slated to air on CTV this fall, rumours about the launch of an official Web site followed closely behind.
“In February, 2000, I got a phone call from Epitome Pictures and I was completely floored,” recalls the 26-year-old graduate student. “They said that they were thinking of making an official site. I thought at first that maybe I would make an official site for them, and that I wouldn’t be unofficial anymore.” Polger’s amateur-looking and non-commercial Web site includes elements like episode guides, press clippings and a message board that, according to Polger, is accessed by thousands of fans from as far away as Australia and Israel. But Epitome Pictures didn’t want his site, they wanted his domain names.
Polger says that he refused the production company’s requests, but they would not give up. “The phone calls persisted, and it started to feel like harrassment.” Finally, last June, Polger agreed to meet with producers Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn. “They asked to meet me so they could thank me for my efforts. So I thought, okay, maybe it’s going to be positive,” he recounts. Instead, says Polger, who had proudly dressed to the nines for the occasion, he was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement about everything discussed, and was again asked to hand over his Degrassi domains, with an offer to transfer his Web sites to another, non-Degrassi domain name. Polger again turned them down.
Producer Linda Schuyler does not readily admit that their interest in the domain names ties directly into future production plans. “It’s basically protection of our trademarks,” says Schuyler. “We would like our domain names, our degrassi.ca domain and degrassi.org.” Epitome Pictures already controls several domains, including http://www.degrassijuniorhigh.net,
http://www.degrassijuniorhigh.org as well as http://www.degrassihigh.com. Unfortunately for them, only “Degrassi High” and “Degrassi Junior High” are actually trademarked, originally registered by Schuyler’s and then-partner Kit Hood’s Playing With Time Inc. The word “Degrassi” is not registered.
Day in court?
The initially informal communications with Polger turned to legal discussions after the June meeting, when Epitome’s lawyers began written communications with Polger’s pro bono legal advisor, a cousin in San Diego. Recently, Polger turned to the press in anger, after receiving a 16-page draft Statement of Claim which charges him with trademark infringement and using the Degrassi domain names in bad faith, passing off his wares, services and Web sites as those of [Playing With Time].” Says Polger: “It’s quite intimidating when, as a student, I am threatened with a lawsuit from this big production company.”
If the parties do not manage to settle, Polger’s cousin cannot represent him in a Canadian court. But Schuyler insists that they do not want the dispute to go to court. “Certainly, our spirit is to want to find an amicable solution,” says Schuyler. However, Epitome Pictures has so far made no efforts to use the basically lawyer-free dispute resolution services in place for .com/.org/.net domains–such as those used by Madonna, Julia Roberts and Sting–managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Nor have they turned to the newly created Canadian Internet Registration Authority for guidance in their degrassi.ca dispute. And, admits Schuyler, “Obviously, if we can’t come to an amicable agreement, then there will be a Statement of Claim filed [in the Federal Court]. There’s no question.”
“I’ve built a very large fan community and they will take that away from me,” Polger declares.
“The domain is highly indexed with all the search engines and it’s very popular. It’s as if you’ve published many articles as a scholar, and your name is associated with a lot of intellectual creative work, and then your name gets taken away from you.”