On June 18, Irene Santoso discovered she had a doppelgänger. Santoso, creative director at local Web design firm US Web, was routinely checking the visitor logs for her personal homepage (www.moonberry.com)– looking to see who had visited her site and how they got there–when she spied a number of links to a site on Geocities.com, a free-homepage company. Curious, she discovered that her entire site, including her extensive design portfolio and personal musings, had been plagiarized (at geocities.com/SoHo/Coffeehouse/4350), with all reference to Santoso wiped out. The hijacker had even cribbed Santoso’s online moniker “moonberry” as her own user name on Geocities. “It’s like Single White Female over the Net,” says the incensed Santoso.
Cloning like this is remarkably easy online–in fact, it’s long been a fundamental part of learning Web design. Browsers offer a “view source” function that allows anyone to view (and copy) the HTML code that creates the page onscreen. Young designers often rely on this public archive to pick up the tricks of the trade or just save time. But for Santoso as for many designers, her code is her reputation. “Everybody can see what you’re doing and also put what you’re doing on their site,” says Santoso.
The pilferer is a 20-year-old Web designer named Jennie Gao, an admitted fan of Santoso’s. The two were actually introduced online last fall, and, according to Santoso, Gao asked a variety of questions about her life and work. In November, Gao launched the page. “I wanted to make an example of [Santoso’s designs], so I put them on a random page on Geocities and forgot about it.” Gao also lifted (and loosely doctored) code from other sites, like soulflare.com. The apologetic Gao confesses that she “would have deleted the page if I knew it would cause this much trouble.” Still, Gao replaced Santoso’s résumé on the cribbed site with her own.
Last week, Santoso sent a urgent complaint to Geocities administrators and, as a result, the duplicate has now been frozen. Geocities’s terms of service leaves copyright complaints up to individuals to resolve. As Geocities CEO Thomas Evans puts it, “We’re not responsible, but we’re responsive.” It’s an attitude in accord with recent court rulings that have expressly refused to hold AOL and other ISPs liable for posting offensive material unknowingly (the Matt Drudge/Sidney Blumenthal libel suit is a case example–AOL’s off the hook, but Drudge is still hanging).
Ultimately, Santoso may be lucky that Gao lifted her work digitally. It’s damn easy to make copies over the Net, but the process often creates an electronic paper trail, says American University law professor Peter Jaszi. The second comer usually leaves “a pretty indelible record of his or her activities,” Jaszi adds. “These [traces] are the smoking gun.”
Gao, in her defense, says hijacked graphics are common on Geocities. “Everybody plays around and copies stuff,” she says. “But I won’t do it again–I can do it myself now.” Gao even has an elegant new homepage. A scrolling introductory text reads, “Every designer needs a personal space… ”
Psmoke and Fire
In a rush of sirens and activity, 12 fire engines cordoned off Broadway and Houston last Wednesday night at 11 p.m. as six firefighters rushed into the sixth-floor studio of Alley company Psuedo.com. The 50-odd people relaxing in the room–the audience for Pseudo’s Net TV program 88hiphop.com–“were bugging out,” says its producer, Mark Kotlinksi. “People thought the Empire State Building was on fire.”
Pseudo itself was fine–the fire department had received an erroneous report. But for Pseudo CEO Josh Harris, the raids are getting to be almost routine. Since last April, the online TV and radio broadcasting company has been visited by law enforcement and slapped with 11 violations of the city’s fire-safety code for operating as a de facto “social club” with booming studio audiences and late-night festivities. The legal imbroglio–which officially commenced last week as Harris faced his first criminal court date–has turned into a face-off. In describing the false alarm last Wednesday, Harris says, “The fire department just wanted to let us know who’s boss.”
The dispute between Pseudo and the city points to the conundrum of new-media shops that function as both businesses and cultural hubs. As John Johnson, Harris’s lawyer, says, “It’s something of a quagmire to categorize them.”
Pseudo, which uses streaming video to present its many “channels” on hip-hop, electronica, and performance art, was charged by the city’s Social Club Task Force (SCTF), a monitoring group created after the Happy Land fire disaster. The fire department claims Pseudo regularly convenes over 75 people in its office space. As a result, the company must get a “public assembly” license and make $50,000 worth of repairs (Pseudo’s estimate), like adding a sprinkler system and replacing wooden stairs. Fire chief Brian Dixon (head of the SCTF) compares Pseudo to a conventional TV station: “NBC has a studio and NBC complies with the codes.”
The visibly harried Harris feels that his business is being threatened. “We’re not selling alcohol or charging at the door–we’re running a legitimate business,” he says. Harris blames the Giuliani administration for “not understanding the Net.” “I’m in the entertainment business–my stock in trade is to make it easy for people to come up here, and the tightass environment that Giuliani has created is hitting us hard.”
But the company’s openness to its visiting fans began changing when things got out of hand at this year’s jam-packed 1998 New Year’s Eve party. After a fight broke out among the revelers, Pseudo called the cops to come help, fired the employee responsible, and significantly toned down its act. When the SCTF stormed the studio at 2:30 a.m. on January 10, the place was empty except for two workers and a very startled Harris, who was living there at the time and had been roused from bed.
Rick Siegel, who runs his own live-concert and TV station over the Web www.onlinetv.com, doesn’t have much patience for Pseudo’s plight. New York new-media companies “have to grow up and realize that there are laws that we have to follow,” he says. Siegel operates out of the basement of Houston Street’s licensed Spiral Lounge, and other Net companies with a focus on live performance, like Platform.net, use rented spaces like Coney Island High. “Josh didn’t do his homework,” says Siegel.
Harris has managed a stay on the case until July 23, when he plans to provide videotapes of the “raid.” It’s clear from the footage that virtually nothing was going on. Harris has a lot at stake. “Fifty thousand dollars is big money,” he says.
Signal and Noise
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 7, 1998