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Playboy sues model over site

The company is suing former Playmate of the Year Terri Welles for $5 million, alleging she infringed on its trademarks on her Web page.

Like many celebrities, Playboy magazine's 1981 Playmate of the Year, Terri Welles, is still cashing in on her 15 minutes of fame.

A single mother, Welles now earns her living through electronic commerce. Since last June, she has been using her online home, TerriWelles.com, to sell autographed pictures, a newsletter about her life and times at Playboy, membership to her fan club, and nude photos. The site also displays advertising from adult Web sites.

Indeed, the former Playmate's site is getting attention--especially from the See special feature: Playboy pins hopes on Net magazine that made her famous after its founder, Hugh Hefner, discovered her almost 20 years ago. Earlier this month, Playboy Enterprises filed a $5 million lawsuit against Welles, charging that she infringed on the company's trademarks.

"I feel like I've been sued by my father," Welles said today. "I don't have the bunny [emblem] anywhere on my site, and all the pictures are mine. I'm going to fight them."

Playboy Enterprises argues that it owns trademarks for the terms "Playboy," "Playmate of the Month," "Playmate of the Year," and the initials "PMOY," all of which are used on Welles's site.

The lawsuit also claims Welles violated trademark law by embedding the magazine's title within the coding of her site. Known as "metatags," the keywords would direct online search engines to deliver Welles's Net address when surfers searched for "Playboy."

"Terri Welles is operating an Internet Web site using several of Playboy's registered trademarks without the company's permission in an attempt to promote her services as a spokesmodel and to advertise the availability of Playmate memorabilia for purchase on her site," said Rebecca Theim, Playboy's spokeswoman.

"Only after months of attempting to resolve the matter amicably with Welles has Playboy sought relief in court to protect the rights and valuable goodwill associated with its trademarks," she said.

Playboy Enterprises already has won a battle against the use of its names in metatags. In September, a federal judged issued a preliminary injunction against a pornographic Web publisher barring him from inserting the words "Playboy" and "Playmate" into the code of his site. (See related story)

But Welles says she has a First Amendment right to post her resume online to make money. As of today, however, the metatags do not appear in her site's code.

"I'm merely stating fact by saying that I'm the 1981 Playmate of the Year," she said. "Playboy just wants all the Playmates to be on their Web site."

Playboy does sell its own services online, and the company says its site gets 1.4 million page views per day. The company's Cyber Club features Playmate Web sites and online chats with the centerfolds for subscribers who pay up to $60 per year or $6.95 per month.

"Playmates are given the opportunity to sell memorabilia through Playboy Cyber Club and to use Playboy's trademarks on their own Web sites under appropriate license from Playboy," Theim added.

Welles charges $84.95 per year or $9.95 per month for access to "exclusive" nude photos of herself, which she says were not shot by Playboy.

Aside from the metatag accusation, legal experts say Welles has a strong free-speech defense.

"That Welles was the 1981 Playmate of the Year is a factual statement," Robert Welsh, an intellectual property attorney for Mitchell, Silberberg, & Knupp in Los Angeles, said today.

"The analogy would be someone who contends today that they were the 1981 winner of the Academy Award for best supporting actor," he added. "The real question is whether you're trying to use a trademark as an identified source of a product or service."

Playboy's business is based on its proprietary content, so it's no surprise the company is diligent about cracking down on Net sites that allegedly infringe on its copyrights or trademarks.

In December, a federal court in Texas awarded Playboy Enterprises $439,000 plus attorney's fees in the company's case against WebbWorld Incorporated, a fee-based daily service that automatically filtered thousands of sexually oriented photos from newsgroups. Playboy Enterprises sued on grounds that its images were being filtered without its permission.