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Meet the Warner Bros: Jekyll and Hyde

The truth behind the Harry Potter domain bullying

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Warner Brothers' stated approach to Harry Potter fan Web sites is in direct contradiction to what is really happening. Not only that but our suspicion that it believes it has a right to any domain containing any reference to Harry Potter has been confirmed. And it doesn't even look at people's sites before firing off threatening legal letters.

Following a couple of days' research into Harry Potter domains, a pattern has emerged in how WB deals with the situation. It's not fair, it's indiscriminate and it's abusive. The official line is that Warner Brothers is simply trying to protect its trademark. It has the rights to the upcoming film version of Harry Potter and doesn't want people to use the character as a platform for their own businesses. Fair enough: companies - especially media companies - have to do this or they'd soon be out of business.

What about all the millions of (mostly young) fans of the Harry Potter books without which a film wouldn't even exist? Warner Brothers loves em - they're the ones that will go to the film and drag their parents along with them. What if one of these fans wants their own fan Web site? That's fine. As long as they don't pretend to be an official site and they don't try to make money from it, Warner Brothers welcomes such enterprising and passionate fans; they were young once too.

Which makes it all the more strange that anyone that registers a domain name with the words Harry Potter in, will soon receive a letter from Warner Brothers telling them that the company is concerned that your domain "is likely to cause consumer confusion". It uses the author's name prominently, saying that Ms Rowling is "concerned" over the site. (We decided to ask single mum JK Rowling why she was so concerned that young children might want a Harry Potter Web site. Her agent informed us that "Ms Rowling won't be available for interview for the foreseeable future".)

The letter will then give you two weeks to get in touch and hand over the domain. If you don't, you'll get a letter from top London lawyers Theodore Goddard. They will inform you that you must hand over the domain immediately or pay the consequences (mostly bills and more threatening letters and lawyers). Interestingly, it doesn't seem too keen on actually going to court and arguing its case. The threat is normally sufficient.

If you co-operate, you will find Warner Brothers understanding and concerned that you aren't upset - you will then get a slightly nicer letter telling you that you must organise transfer of the domain yourself and sign a WB warranty as soon as possible. Once you send proof that Warner Brothers now owns the domain, you will get reimbursed for the transfer costs.

But it's not all bad news. After you've done all this you will probably get a Harry Potter calendar (!). Yes, pretty good, huh? And yes, apparently this is the only Potter merchandise it can get its hands on at the moment. And my gran's a monkey.

Incredibly, Warner Brothers has also admitted to several domain owners that it hasn't actually looked at their site - which kinda begs the question, how do you know it's a "cybersquatter" or a fan that owns the URL? Well, you don't and WB doesn't care either.

It doesn't end there either. A few of those contacted have been sorry that they have unintentionally strayed into WB's trademark and so ask what URLs would be safe to use for their fan sites. The answer is a remarkable one: you can have any domain you want whatsoever. As long as it doesn't contain or refer to any aspect of Harry Potter or the books. So that's ANY reference to anything in the books that is off-bounds. Which again begs a question: what the hell are you supposed to call a Harry Potter fan site, and how would anyone find it? (Would the URL www.glasses.com be safe? Harry does, after all, wear glasses.)

Now we don't want to call Warner Brothers two-faced or make references to Jekyll and Hyde, but that's what it is, so what choice do we have? ®

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