- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

Heather Lawver, a 16-year-old from Sterling, Va., doesn't look like a rabble-rouser. Her auburn hair is curly, not spiked or colored pink. Her skin is bare of tattoos, and she has a sugar-sweet smile.

Appearances deceive. She knows how to stir things up.

Heather, a true-blue Harry Potter fan, has organized an international boycott of Harry Potter merchandise, and she's not backing down anytime soon. In December, Heather learned that lawyers from Warner Bros. (which owns the rights to the upcoming Potter flick "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone") had sent e-mails to her friends, young creators of Harry Potter-related sites. The e-mails threatened the children with legal action if they did not surrender their domain names.

Heather took action.

"I heard about it and knew Warner Bros. had no right," Heather says, "but no one was taking a stand."

According to her, 26 site creators received e-mails from Warner Bros. Executives at the company put the number at five.

Heather also runs a fan site, www.dprophet.com, which gets 400 to 2,000 hits each day. Her site was never targeted. "Mine wasn't targeted because I had one of the more popular sites. Most of the sites that were threatened were smaller sites," she reasons.

The home-schooled teen runs the Web site from a makeshift office in her family's unfinished basement. It's named for the Daily Prophet, the magical newspaper in Potter books. Last month, Heather and five other teens won top prizes in an international Web-design contest sponsored by a software firm. The prizes: $2,500 in cash, a lifetime of hosting for their sites and a weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After catching wind of Warner Bros.' actions, Heather checked the Internet for news. She found a sole protest site. The site was run by Alastair Alexander, a 33-year-old city councilman and graphic designer from London. She proposed an alliance. On Feb. 19, the duo launched a boycott site attached to Heather's site, www.dprophet.com/dada/. The site explains Warner Bros.' actions and calls for a boycott of all Potter merchandise, except for books. A petition, which was signed by 1,500 people, also was included.

That day, the official Harry Potter message board was plastered with messages from Potter fans reacting to what they had read on the protest site, Heather says. The messages were quickly trashed.

"Hundreds of e-mail messages went up," Heather says, her eyebrows crinkling with the memory of frustration, "but by the end of the day, every message was deleted."

After she launched the site, her phone rang nonstop with media interest. Heather was interviewed by USA Today, Fox, NBC and local stations about the boycott site.

Her day in the sun really came when she faced her personal Darth Vader, Diane Nelson, a vice president at Warner Bros., on the cable TV show "Hardball."

Miss Nelson says the flap was a misunderstanding and that sending out the e-mails was "standard business practice." Warner Bros. did not know it was sending e-mails to young creators, she says. "We are not a big, scary corporation."

Heather disagrees.

"They know perfectly well they are a big corporation and that the [people they threatened] didn't have the money to defend themselves. They had the trump card, and they threw it," Heather says.

After the not-so-hot publicity, Warner Bros. tried to resolve the cases in two ways: either allowing fans to keep ownership of their domain names or forcing fans to give up their domain names but allowing them content control, Miss Nelson says.

Warner Bros. did not pay the children for giving up the names, Miss Nelson says. As owners of Harry Potter rights, Warner Bros. has a right to them "to protect the fans from inappropriate material," she says.

By April, a few cases were left hanging. Heather went to USA Today, and another story was published. The same day, her site was shut down by her Internet service provider, MM Hosting, a middle-size company based in Illinois.

Her mother, Anne Lawver, who home-schooled Heather, called the provider's chief executive officer and asked if Warner Bros. had had anything to do with it.

"He wouldn't answer [the question] and told me this long story on how much traffic her site got, using all this computer jargon," Mrs. Lawver says. "I knew that it wasn't possible."

According to Mrs. Lawver, the CEO said one of Heather's files had overloaded MM Hosting's system. It had received too many hits. Heather checked the file. It had received just 400 hits. (The month before, Heather had paid $300 for unlimited bandwidth, which should mean that an unlimited number of people can click into the site.)

Heather got some of her money back, and Mr. Alexander, who works for an Internet company, gave her free Web space. Heather says she thinks Warner Bros. may have had something to do with her site's shutdown.

Miss Nelson says Warner Bros. "would never engage in such a practice. Heather is welcome to explore it."

Mrs. Lawver says she and her husband, Larry Lawver, a program manager for a defense contracting company, are proud of their daughter.

"It's great that she took a stand," Mrs. Lawver says — but she is "slightly worried," she adds with a nervous laugh. "There's a cost for activism."

Now both Heather and Miss Nelson say that Warner Bros., which expects to release the movie in November, has settled the cases. Miss Nelson admits that "everyone may not be happy," though she says she doesn't know of any angry fans.

Still, all is not swell in wizard world. The boycott site is still up. It declares that the boycott is "on hiatus" and that Heather and Mr. Alexander are "waiting and watching." Last month, the last two young creators with unresolved cases, Tom Morris and Ross McCaw, stopped talking to Heather and Mr. Alexander. Heather heard from a CNN producer that their cases had been resolved.

The two were "poster children" for the boycott cause, as the other young creators had been pressured by their parents to bow out, Heather says. Without them, she says, the boycott lacks steam.

Heather suspects Warner Bros. had a hand in the children's silence.

"All I know is that Warner Bros. gave Ross a whole bunch of money for a contest," she says. "It's really fishy. The kids have gone silent. Cases have been resolved, and we haven't been told about it."

Miss Nelson denies any involvement. "To my knowledge, [Tom and Ross] are very happy. We did not tell them not to talk about it," she says.

Miss Nelson no longer returns Heather's phone calls or e-mails. CNN is investigating the story and has told Heather to go to "60 Minutes," as both CNN and Warner Bros. are owned by AOL Time Warner.

"Strange things are happening," Heather says. "If Warner Bros. doesn't clean up their act," she adds, she and Mr. Alexander will call out the cyber-troops, again posting a boycott announcement on Heather's well-trafficked site — just in time for the movie, she notes with a smile.

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