All in a Day’s Damage Control

How a big-shot magazine editor and her lawyers lost their sense of humor and then found it again, and how an internet service provider lost its backbone and then magically rediscovered it.

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Here at the MoJo Wire, certain things tickle us. One is watching corporate media eat itself alive. Another is standing up for the little guy. When the two come together, as they did on Friday, well, we’re all atwitter.

The episode began when an online parody of the much-hyped, and soon-to-be-launched, print magazine Talk was featured atop Friday’s Drudge Report. Word quickly spread over the net to check out this mock, electronic version of the latest magazine venture from Tina Brown, the former wunderkind editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Talk is published jointly by the Hollywood studio Miramax (owned by Disney) and Hearst Publications.

The site parodies the language in Talk’s flighty direct-mail materials which have been flooding mailboxes for the past several weeks. The actual mailing is highly spoofable: “Talk is the exciting new magazine for the new century. Interestingly different. Refreshingly provocative. … It makes elite subjects accessible. And accessible subjects elite.”

The front page of the parody describes a magazine which would, as the real Talk’s silly advance materials promise to, appeal to a vacuous gaggle of gossiping morons who mistake themselves for progressive sophisticates. It is a biting satire of New York’s liberal media establishment.

The parody reads, in part: “Talk is F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bjork, funny black people, stoic Filipinos and daring Asians. Talk is astronauts and kremlinologists, people who read the New York Times Book Review but don’t actually read books. … Talk is civilians who’ve slept with celebrities. Talk is celebrities who have died. Talk is celebrities who are more interesting than other celebrities who have died.”

The site has a seductively professional layout, and includes the Talk logo. Within hours of Drudge Report mention, Miramax lawyers logged on and were apparently unamused. They sent a threatening fax to Earthlink, the internet service provider which was hosting the site. The letter claimed the fake zine’s logo was a rip-off of the real thing, and thus a violation of trademark law. Miramax demanded the site be taken down.

Earthlink called the creator of the magazine and owner of the Web site, Michael Colton (a senior writer at Brill’s Content), and told him the site would be taken down. When Colton asked to speak to the legal department, he was told by Earthlink — an internet company, remember — that he would have to contact them by mail: the kind which requires a stamp. Soon after he hung up the phone, was out of commission.

(Ed Note: Shortly thereafter, Colton and his compatriots began looking for another server willing to host the parody. When the call came in to our offices asking if the MoJo Wire would host the site on our servers, we immediately agreed to do it. We felt it had become a matter of unfair legal intimidation by a huge corporation against an individual expressing himself in a perfectly defensible manner. Fortunately, the situation was later resolved without our assistance.)

Within the hour after Earthlink caved, the media had gotten hold of the story. Earthlink’s public relations manager Kurt Rahn got a call from The New York Times. According to Rahn, it was the first he had heard about the problem. The phone also started ringing at Talk magazine (the real one) as well. Earthlink and Miramax quickly went into full-tilt backpedal.

By late afternoon, the controversial site was back on line. Colton had received an apology and a few months free service from Earthlink. Tina Brown was making it known that she thought the site was “hilarious,” and certainly didn’t want it taken down. Talk publicity director Hillary Bass explained that the editorial staff had been busy down in the “war room” closing the first issue of the magazine, and hadn’t had a chance to see the parody. She intoned that the lawyers were just doing their job. She also claimed that as soon as Brown had a chance to visit the site and realized how darn funny it was, the lawyers were instructed to draft a second letter and send it to Earthlink. Miramax had undergone a change of heart: suddenly, no trademark problemo here.

Meanwhile, Rahn says he never received the second letter from Miramax, but he didn’t need one. Taking the site down was done by someone “unauthorized to do so,” he said. In fact, he said tampering with the site had violated Earthlink’s own privacy policy. According to Rahn, Earthlink only shuts down sites containing material which is “clearly illegal,” such as child pornography or assassination contracts. “We don’t want some big company getting 10 lawyers to write a letter and shut down a little guy. Most of our clients are little guys,” Rahn said.

What Rahn couldn’t explain, other than saying it was, “done on purpose, by mistake,” is why someone at Earthlink was so easily intimidated by corporate lawyers and blithely sacrificed one of Earthlink’s clients, against policy and all good sense.

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