Are posters and pinups passé? Cybersurfers are netting pictures of their favorite celebrities — and making heavenly bodies a new kind of rage

By EW Staff
Updated September 15, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Think of them as the cyberspace equivalent of trading cards. Every day, in homes and in offices all over the world, millions of people download photographs of their favorite supermodels, actresses, and (occasionally) male hunks from on-line services, Internet newsgroups, and the World Wide Web to archive on hard drives, integrate into screensavers, and print out to pin up or exchange with friends.

While some of the image swapping on the Net involves porn, more and more cybersurfers are scarfing down PG-rated cheesecake, as evidenced by the growing number of photo-rich celebrity websites listed by Yahoo (a popular Net directory that can be accessed via the Web). There are at least seven pages devoted to Drew Barrymore, seven to Cindy Crawford, and a new shrine to Alicia Silverstone seemingly added every other day.

Why do so many people spend so much time downloading these images (which can take as long as 30 minutes) when they can just as easily get higher-quality versions from the original sources — magazines, posters, and videocassettes? ”It’s for exactly the same reason that someone runs a fan club or seeks an autograph,” explains the proprietor of a supermodel Web page, who insists on anonymity for fear of hassles over copyright infringement. ”We’re admirers and collectors.”

Most Web spinners simply ignore or are unaware of copyright law, which is meant to protect an artist or publisher from being ripped off. (Of course, there are legitimate sites on the Web and on services such as America Online and Prodigy — movie, TV, and music promo areas, to name three — where you can download photos without fear of legal repercussions.) But you can bet that when a photo of a hot young star is printed in a magazine — including this one — it will likely be scanned almost instantly by some zealous fan and posted on a website or bulletin-board service for downloading, eventually ending up on dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sites and potentially on millions of PCs. Needless to say, the photographer might not get a credit and definitely won’t receive a royalty, and only rarely is the publication cited. If nudity enters the picture, odds are that the photo will be even more widely disseminated. Prank sters have been known to fabricate nudes by digitally grafting a star’s face onto someone else’s body (as was the case with an obviously doctored image of Bruce Willis recently making the rounds; and MTV VJ Kennedy suffered embarrassment last year when a topless shot, purportedly of her backstage at Woodstock ’94, appeared on the Net).

That’s the kind of thing that scares the pixels out of Hollywood flacks, who are quite literally losing control of their clients’ images. ”The whole phenomenon to me is very bizarre,” says J.J. Harris, Drew Barrymore’s agent. ”I think it’s a potentially dangerous force.” Part of the problem, she says, is that ”Drew has taken so many photographs with so many top photographers, and any fan can call us and ask for a picture of her.” This can provide ample fodder for an unofficial fan site. ”I’ve never downloaded a picture, and I’ve never provided one,” says Elizabeth Much, who handles Alicia Silverstone’s PR. ”There are no laws to regulate it. It’s a little bit scary.”