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Fox pounces on TV fan Web sites

Fans of "The X-Files" and other Fox shows are up against 20th Century Fox executives who want to clamp down on Web sites devoted to TV characters.

On the popular TV show "The X-Files," FBI special agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder crack the bizarre and paranormal cases other agents can't handle.

On the Internet, it's the show's fans who are up against powerful forces, trying to get through to 20th Century Fox executives who want to clamp down on Web sites devoted to TV characters.

The Web serves as a venue through which enthusiastic fans can share their passion for a particular TV show. But the way Fox network executives see it, some sites go too far and may infringe on copyrighted work.

In a statement, Fox said it "appreciates" fan sites but "requests that sites using Fox's copyrighted and trademarked materials comply with guidelines that protect the creative integrity of the series."

Fans counter that they're giving free publicity to the networks and their shows and therefore should be protected from criticism.

Fox executives could not immediately be reached for comment.

The ongoing dispute underscores the delicate balance between protecting the legal rights of the creators and welcoming people who help promote the show with a click of the mouse.

To prove how valuable the Web can be when it comes to a show's ratings, some fans are trying to generate support for a national blackout May 13, in which sites for every TV show would be taken down for 24 hours.

Comedy Central spokesman Steve Albani, however, said that although he is sympathetic to the fans fighting Fox, he is doubtful the blackout tactic will have a direct effect on viewership.

Problems for the fans began about four years ago, when Fox's lawyers sent letters to Web site operators who they believed took their enthusiasm a little too far. About 50 targeted sites were eventually either stripped down or shut down.

Shannon Vieira of Canada got one of those letters. It ordered her to stop using sounds and images on her "Simpsons" site, like the Homer character's well-known "Doh!" and "Woohoo!" expressions.

"I was 19 at the time, and I didn't want the hassles, so I closed down the site," she said. "It was a big letdown."

Vieira has since opened another "Simpsons" site, this time following Fox's strict guidelines.

"It's not like you're doing this to get paid; you're doing this because you love the show," Vieira said. "Then Fox comes along and tells you to shut it down. It's like you're being torn apart for promoting their show."

But Fox isn't the only network trying to keep a rein on fan Web sites. A few years ago, Trekkies defied Viacom's ban on the use of unauthorized "Star Trek" materials on the Web.

The efforts of these young Webmasters is something other networks are encouraging.

Comedy Central, for instance, considers the sites a "great promotional tool," Albani said.

He points out that the television cartoon "South Park" gained its popularity over the Net before it was a TV hit.

"I think it's foolish to alienate the fans," he said. "The Web is a great way to spread the word about a show. It's free marketing."