Penguin and the great katie.com hijack

The abused becomes the abuser over Katie.com


It was a book that taps into many people's fears over Internet technology - how children may be at risk from adults manipulating the anonymous online exchange.

There have been numerous TV programmes, articles and even laws created that cover and hope to battle the perceived menace of Internet chatrooms. However, Katie.com is unique in that its author - US teenager Katherine Tarbox - was actually a victim of an online predator. She was 13, so was Mark. Except Mark was really a 40-year-old called Frank, and a paedophile.

Unsurprisingly, the book received massive press attention in the States when it was launched in April 2000. It has since been through several reprints, been printed across the world, and Katie has managed to make a career out of retelling her tale. Most recently an entire TV show called "Katie.com" aired in the US. She now plans to launch a school curriculum to teach kids about online safety, called, inevitably, Katie.com.

There is only one snag however - the actual Internet domain "Katie.com" is owned by a completely different Katie - Katie Jones, and she lives in the UK. Katie is furious over what she sees as the hijacking of her domain name - bought for her in 1996 by her husband. Ever since the book was published - four years after she had first been bought it - Katie Jones has received masses of email and heavy traffic to her site but wants none of it. She has had to pull her own content off visible pages on the site, and has posted instead a protest blog about how the book's publishers - Penguin - have effectively made it impossible for her to use her own property.

On top of this, Katie runs a chatroom business in the UK, and had used the site as a homepage to, among other things, post pictures of her baby. Considering the context, it was impossible for her to mention either on her homepage.

What is especially upsetting to new mum Katie is the content of the thousands of emails sent to her email address. Many tell tales of sexual abuse, many ask for advice, but many more contain sick and offensive comments from those who find paedophilia amusing or exciting.

Anyone for T?
What is especially annoying is that Penguin knew when it gave the book its title that Katie.com was owned by Katie Jones, whereas the author's website can be found at Katiet.com. Penguin has refused to apologise and has instead continued to promote her website, save a small copyright notice in the front of the paperback edition in 2001 saying: "The publishers wish to make clear that the author of Katie.com and the events described in Katie.com have no connection whatsoever with the website found at the domain name address www.katie.com, or with the e-mail address katie@katie.com."

Recently, with Katherine Tarbox setting herself up as the kind of lucrative niche issue speaker that American TV shows are so fond of, the problem with Katie.com has become worse and Katie Jones has again asked the publishers to behave more responsibly.

In an open letter on her site, she has outlined her irritation at being steamrollered: "Penguin - you are a large multinational corporation with huge resources. I am a young woman with a young family and very few resources. Don't add to the wrong you've already done and use your power to brush me aside on this matter. I'm not a powerful corporation, I am just one person, but I believe I have the right not to have my website and name used in this way."

The response to this has been a call from Katie Tarbox's lawyer, which Katie Jones describes as "very unpleasant". The lawyer "tried to convince me that I should donate the domain name to them," Katie told us. "Somehow this would resolve my problem. Okay, so not only do I get walked all over, my life invaded by this book, treated badly by the publisher/author who refuse to acknowledge that they've done the wrong thing, but then I get to hand it over to them on a silver plate and I not only have suffered all this aggravation but ultimately have lost the thing that I care about. Exactly HOW does this resolve anything other than give them the thing they want which they have done everything to hijack without any care and consideration for what is right and just?"

Clearly Katie Tarbox and Penguin wish to avoid paying large sums of money for the Katie.com domain name, and have even informed Katie Jones that she won't be able to sell it because it is now intricately linked with the book and media machine surrounding the other Katie.

However, Penguin has built the Katie.com "brand" with full knowledge that it did not own the domain so blatantly alluded to. It has never offered to buy the domain off Katie Jones either. But it has clear knowledge of the effect it has had. Indeed, Katie Jones points out that the book was originally to be titled "girl.com" but the name was changed before publication, quite possibly because "girl.com" is a porn site. Katie Tarbox's lawyer also informed Katie Jones that the problem "will only get worse".

Redress in the law courts?
Normally such a situation would be easily settled in the law courts, however, as Katie Jones says: "I am only one person and taking on such a giant corporation as Penguin Puttnam is is completely beyond my means." On top of this, domain name law remains very much up in the air, despite the ground-breaking decision over Sex.com where a domain name was effectively given equal legal status as property.

The more Penguin and Katie Tarbox promote Katie.com in full knowledge of the fact they do not possess it, and of the effect this has on an innocent party, the more the pressure on Katie Jones will increase (something that is quite possibly their intention). But it also makes a legal case against them stronger and more lucrative.

Awareness of such strong-arm tactics is also growing online. The Amazon.com book review of Katie.com features two negative reviews on the front page titled "Greed Greed Greed" and "Don't support blackmail" which both refer to the domain issue.

And while it is easy to sympathise with Katie Tarbox and her teenage trauma, it is also increasingly easy to sympathise with Kate Jones, who has been steamrollered by a huge corporation, and has received only problems and costs from the book's success.

As Katie herself explains: "Katie.com belongs to me, it's associated with my professional and personal reputation and if they can hijack it like this then what kind of precedent is that setting for other companies or people to do the same to other peoples domain names?" She neatly sumises: "It's akin to publishing a book with my home phone number as the title, or my home address." If Penguin doesn't behave more responsibly, it may quickly find public opinion turns against it.

What makes it all especially ironic of course is that the book itself is about the abuse of the Internet to disrupt an innocent person's life. In the situation of Katie.com, however, it is increasingly the case that the abused has become the abuser. ®

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