Teaching a (history) lesson

Dixie Chicks sic lawyers on a fan's exhaustive Web site

Robert Brooks has been a devoted Dixie Chicks fan for six years, from the time he and his wife first saw them perform at an American Airlines company picnic at Sandy Lake Amusement Park. Since then, he has followed the band like a debt collector, doggedly tracking the Dixie Chicks' every up and down, from the lean years spent touring West Texas high school cafeterias in a beat-up van to the unexpected double-platinum success of its 1998 major-label debut, Wide Open Spaces, which garnered the band two honors at this year's Country Music Association awards show. And, like any computer-literate fan, the 31-year-old computer programmer created a Web site dedicated to the band, titled "The All-Inclusive Dixie Chicks Page" (www.dallas.net/~totoro/dixiechicks), an exhaustive look at Nashville's latest overnight sensation, going all the way back to the band's humble beginnings on a Deep Ellum street corner.

The only problem is, as Brooks was working to preserve the Dixie Chicks' past, the band was trying to forget it.

Like most other fan sites, his online shrine was unauthorized and technically illegal, at least where his use of downloadable audio clips was concerned. He had included a handful of 30-second snippets of songs, concentrating on the Dixie Chicks' back catalog, which is currently out of print: 1990's Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, 1992's Little Ol' Cowgirl, and 1993's Shouldn't A Told You That. Brooks didn't mean any harm; he just wanted to let the band's new fans in on what they didn't know they were missing. Although the band's meteoric rise had spawned more online activity than nude photos of Dr. Laura, Brooks' site was the only one that focused on the band's original sound, a mix of traditional country and bluegrass. He wanted people to hear the band he had fallen in love with at Sandy Lake six years ago, the one that sounded more like Bill Monroe sitting in with the Andrews Sisters than the Spice Girls belting out Shania Twain covers.

"I wanted to show some of the fiddle playing, some of the banjo playing," Brooks says. "Wide Open Spaces has better fiddle than just about anything else out of Nashville, but you can hardly ever hear the banjo, and even the fiddle gets drowned out by the generic background instruments. I put the sound site together to show what they're capable of--not even just as an advertisement for their old material, but for their new material, and maybe encourage fans to listen and ask for it, demand that they let those girls play."

Although the clips were in the controversial MP3 format--meaning they were of CD-quality--Brooks didn't think he was doing anything wrong. He even sent the band a letter describing his page, inviting them to check it out. Unfortunately for him, someone did.

On November 12, less than two months after he added the sound clips to his page, he received a letter from John Beiter--an attorney with the Nashville-based law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips--demanding that he "immediately cease and desist [his] infringement of the rights of the Dixie Chicks." Brooks had no choice but to conform to Beiter's request. As he puts it, his "legal defense fund is limited to the change caught between the cushions of the sofa."

"I thought about the possibility [of legal trouble] when I first put together the sound samples," Brooks says. "Almost all of them were 30-second to one-minute sound samples with a lot of text explaining the context of the sample, what to listen for in the sample. I included one full song, but I put big disclaimers around it: 'If this album ever gets re-released, I will delete this immediately.' I really did feel that they were presented under what I've heard is called the fair-use doctrine of copyright law. They're presented in the context of a review of the artist's work. There are several other what I call 'new' Chicks sites, and they have sound samples. One has sound samples of every track on the new album."

In person, Brooks is so polite and soft-spoken, he looks as if the only contact he'd have with lawyers would be from Law & Order reruns. As he speaks, he still has the same wide-eyed enthusiasm that sparked him to start the Web site in the first place. He didn't make a dime from the page, and since the clips were only 30 seconds, it was hardly a grand moneymaking scheme to begin with. The fact is, however, Brooks didn't have permission for the copyrighted material he used. Still, on the Internet, using audio clips without permission is like driving through a tollbooth without paying: Everyone does it, and only an unfortunate few ever get caught.

"The bottom line to me is very simple," says Beiter, whose firm was hired by Senior Management, the band's Nashville-based management company. "To me, it's just not fair. It's not fair for him to take their copyright and decide that he's unilaterally going to give it away out on the Internet. It's not fair for him to do that. He may try to cast it as David versus Goliath or Robin Hood or whatever, but it's just not fair for him to do that. He never even asked.

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