Owner of katie.com says she was victim, too -- of privacy invasion
By Emanuella Grinberg
Katie Tarbox's critically acclaimed story of how she was the victim of an Internet predator has the same title as a real Web site. And the site's owner wasn't pleased.
When Katie Jones bought the domain name katie.com in 1996, she relished the opportunity to own a name-dot-com site at a time when such common names were being quickly swallowed up.
Jones, an online chat room moderator then based in London, used the site to post pictures of her son, her resume, a blog and links to her business, ukchat.com.
But she could not have foreseen the nuisance the site would become, when, in 2000, book publisher Penguin Group used the domain name as the title for a teen's tale of sexual molestation at the hands of a man she met in an Internet chat room.
The book, "Katie.com," chronicled the plight of Katherine Tarbox, a 13-year-old from Connecticut who struck up an online relationship with a man she believed was 23. He turned out to be a 40-year-old registered sex offender, and when she met him in a Houston hotel a couple of months later while in town for a swim meet, he molested her.
With the book's release to critical and commercial success, Jones -- the real katie.com -- began receiving millions of e-mails a week to her email@example.com inbox.
Most messages detailed personal experiences of sexual abuse, while others praised her bravery for sharing "her" story and helping others. Friends wrote to ask Jones if the story had really happened to her.
Still more e-mails contained what Jones calls "abusive" and "disturbing" remarks and threats. Others contained links to pornographic material.
Four years later, Jones still receives such correspondence, she says. "Every time the media resurrects her story, I get untold amounts of spam," said Jones, who still owns and maintains katie.com, but has a new personal e-mail address.
"I have the utmost respect for Katie Tarbox for writing the story, I just wish it hadn't affected me," Jones said. "I don't want to sound bitter. I just wish it was not a part of my life."
Shortly after the book's release, Jones removed personal content from her site, and it now serves solely as an open letter to the book's publisher.
"It's completely unfair that you feel that you can use my domain name for your own purposes without consulting me. I feel that my domain name has now been irrevocably associated with this book," the letter reads.
"I feel it is very important that I, and everyone else out there with a domain name, have the right to protect our good name, property, and right to privacy."
But does she?
When Jones complained to the publisher that her privacy had been violated, she said she received a long letter in response, telling her, as she puts it, to "bugger off."
In June 2001 paperback editions of "Katie.com" hit the shelves with a note from the book's publisher, Plume, on the copyright page regarding Jones' site.
It reads: "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 Web site found at the domain name address www.katie.com, or with the e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org."
That's probably the best Jones can hope for, according to Internet and domain law experts.
"It's a pretty big stretch for her to claim any ownership rights, since on the Internet those rights are only extended for commercial use," Internet law specialist John Dozier of the Virginia firm Dozier Internet Law.
"The name has to have an inherent distinction in the marketplace so that in the eyes of the public, it has achieved such notoriety that by just stating the name, people automatically associate it with that," Dozier said.
But a recent Supreme Court ruling that domain name holders have certain property rights theoretically could be applied to Jones' circumstances, says Internet law attorney Jay Hollander, principal of the New York firm Hollander and Company.
In 1998, the owner of the domain name sex.com sued an ex-con who had forged a letter to domain registrar Network Solutions, getting them to transfer ownership of the domain name sex.com to him. The original owner, Gary Kremen, also filed suit against Network Solutions for allowing the transaction to go through.
In 2003, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Kremen had a property right to the stolen domain and that Network Solutions was potentially liable for giving it away without proper authorization.
The decision effectively put domain names on the same footing as ordinary, tangible property.
"This ruling could perhaps extend to Jones' circumstances if she could establish that the value of her Web site was diminished by its association with the novel," says Hollander, quick to add that it would take a persistent, vigorous counsel to mount the claim.
He also points to Jones' job as an Internet chat room moderator as a factor that could add substance to her claim. "Even though it's a personal fight, Jones has a commercial reputation. There could be the concern that her commercial reputation was damaged by its association with the book."
But Jones says she gave up the fight long ago for lack of time and resources.
"All I ever wanted was them to admit that what they'd done was wrong. Kids learn that it's not safe to give out their name and address to strangers, the publisher needs to learn it's not right to give out domain names in such a way," Jones said.