What rights does a star have online?
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When Lin Milano saw some uncensored photos on the Internet in 1995, it wasn’t the nudity that shocked her: It was that the body on display belonged to her daughter, actress Alyssa Milano. Appalled by such “commercial exploitation,” the elder Milano went on to form Cyber-Tracker, an L.A.-based company that scours the online world for illegal images of celebs and E-mails cease-and-desist requests to errant sites. This April, as a result of her mother’s efforts, Alyssa Milano filed two lawsuits against several website owners for copyright infringement and usurping her control over how her name and image should be used commercially.

Whether or not the actress wins, the case reflects Hollywood’s deep uneasiness with the wild and woolly Internet. While most of the photos that Milano is suing over were undoctored—nude images lifted from the 1995 film Embrace of the Vampire—the Web is awash with bogus pics that plop the head of a celebrity on an unidentified nude body. Unofficial star-worship sites add frenzied momentum to a celeb’s popularity: During the recent Titanic craze, visits to Darrell Gaskins’ Leonardo DiCaprio fan site spiked to 30,000 in one day.

Does a star have any rights to his or her name and image online? The answer for now: Maybe. Under the traditional laws currently governing the Internet, celebs must prove that their copyright or right to publicity has been infringed. If not, there’s not much of a case, no matter how much they feel their image has been ruined. Says Mitchell Kamarck, the attorney representing Milano: “The Internet can be an unfriendly place. We’re trying to prevent the wholesale misappropriation of celebrity images.”

While the courts figure it out, a backlash is building. In May, Porno for Pyros ex-lead singer Perry Farrell filed a $90 million suit against a site reportedly planning to show nude video clips of him and his girlfriend. Earlier that month, skater Nancy Kerrigan obtained a restraining order to force an L.A. Web company to remove a fake nude photo. (She later filed suit.) Two months prior, 1940s screen siren Hedy Lamarr came out of seclusion to sue a company that had allegedly used her name and likeness to market a product without permission.

Anthony Lupo, an Internet copyright attorney in Washington, D.C., predicts that more stars will seek redress from the courts. But before launching a preemptive strike, Lupo says, they should carefully weigh their options. “If [Milano] is trying to raise awareness of this problem on the Internet, then she’s done a good job. [But in the meantime] the attention her case draws will increase the demand [for her pictures] throughout the Net by tenfold.” Celebs beware: “The Internet can be litigated, but it cannot be controlled.”

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