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[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
John Fontana, 22, started the Web site Beatlelyrics.com in May 1999. He recently received a letter from a New York law firm telling him that his site was infringing on Beatles’ copyrighted logos and trademarks. Fontana, who is hearing-impaired, has been a Beatle fan since he was 6.

By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002


Beatles lyrics on the Web? For one unusual Fab Four fan, a law firm won't let it be.

PALM HARBOR -- John Fontana lost his hearing five years ago. A tumor on the auditory nerve. He had just graduated from East Lake High School.

The last thing he heard? His beloved Beatles singing Help!

"It was a blow to my system not to be able to listen to music anymore," recalled Fontana, 22. "Especially the Beatles."

In 1999 he found a way to keep his obsession alive. Fontana started a Web site devoted to the Fab Four. It featured album covers, song lists, lyrics and band photos. Nothing was for sale. He just wanted to connect with other fans.

And he did. Hundreds of people a day visited Beatlelyrics.com. The day George Harrison died in November, the site got 3,000 hits.

Then, last month, Fontana got a certified letter from a New York law firm. In dry legalese the letter warned that his Web site was infringing on Beatles' copyrighted logos and trademarks. Apple Corps Ltd. -- "Sir Paul McCartney, Richard Starkey, the Estate of George Harrison and Mrs. Yoko Ono Lennon" -- was not amused.

Stop using the logos and album covers on your site, the letter read. You have one week to comply. We're looking for other illegal content on your site.

"At first, I was actually sort of excited. Flattered," Fontana said. "Then I started feeling guilty, like I'd done something wrong."

Is this any way for a band to treat its fans?

No harm intended, said Paul LiCalsi, a partner in the Goliath-sized firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, which employs 600 lawyers, has offices all over the United States and was founded in 1906 (long before rock 'n' roll). It has represented the Beatles for 18 years, as well as Elton John, David Bowie and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Even so, said LiCalsi recently, "We're not the big bad wolf we might appear to be in this situation." He spoke by telephone from southern France, where he was vacationing.

Meanwhile, Fontana was fuming in his second-floor bedroom, a veritable shrine to the Beatles.

Abbey Road sign over the door. A poster for the Magical Mystery Tour. Framed portrait of John, Paul, George and Ringo looking oh-so-young, wearing pastel suits and standing in an English garden.

"I have this little Beatles fixation," Fontana admitted with a smile.

He looks sort of like a juvenile John Lennon, with small, round wire-rims and an earlobe-length mop of brown hair. He describes his weight as "between waif and svelte." He's a Bucs fan, likes the Lightning, helps manage an Internet sports message board called FanHome.com.

Nirvana and Jim Morrison posters also decorate his walls. But on the desk where his stereo used to sit, there's an empty spot.

Fontana was 6 when his dad, Ron, sat him down in front of the TV with his two brothers, Mike and Andy, and popped in a video of the 1965 Beatles movie, Help!

"Here were these guys singing and running around like crazy," Fontana recalled. "I was hooked."

By the time Fontana was 15, his hearing was beginning to fade. He has neurofibromatosis, type 2, a rare genetic disorder that causes benign tumors to grow over the central nervous system. He already had surgery to remove one on his spine and is facing another operation for one in his neck.

The tumor that took his hearing was removed by a surgeon in California in 1997. Fontana knew he would probably come home deaf because of irreversible damage to the nerve. So the night before, he listened to the entire two-CD Beatles anthology. He could barely hear it.

Last fall, after four years of silence, Fontana got an auditory brain stem implant, which is like the cochlear implant, a surgically inserted device that allows the profoundly deaf to "hear" electronically processed sound. The process is not instantaneous. The wearer must learn to interpret the electronic signals being sent to the brain.

Fontana still can't make out a lot of what people say to him and unfamiliar music is a jumble of sounds. The only music he can really appreciate is what he knows best: Beatles songs.

The message from the lawyers, however, was loud and clear. Although the letter did not specifically instruct Fontana to dismantle his Web site, he took it as a "cease-and-desist" order.

"I really have no choice but to conform," he said. "I don't have the means to launch a legal fight with the most influential pop group of the last century."

So Beatlelyrics.com came down last week. Fontana posted a notice on the site, telling visitors what happened. Immediately, sympathetic messages flooded in, from fans from Mexico to Britain. They were shocked, angry, "crushed."

"The dirty rotters," e-mailed Kristal Fields (presumably no relation to Strawberry). "That was perfectly evil what they did to you."

"I wonder if the Beatles corp. realise that it is due to your site alone . . . that I had recently purchased all the Beatles albums," wrote another fan. "So your site was increasing their bottom line."

"So much for John's (Lennon) ideals," groused another.

LiCalsi, the Beatles' big bad wolf -- er, lawyer -- said musicians have to protect what is called their "intellectual property" -- the trademarked names and logos that a band develops, as well as any copyrights they hold on the music or lyrics.

"This fellow sounds like a good person and it's unfortunate that we had to get in the way of what he was doing," LiCalsi said. "But when you don't actively protect things like trademarks and copyrights, it becomes easier for the next person. And while one person may be an absolutely well-meaning fan, the next person could be in the Beatles bootlegging business."

LiCalsi said this is an increasingly troublesome problem for the music industry. His firm is constantly sending letters like the one Fontana received.

The National Music Publishers Association maintains what it calls a "monitoring service" to police musical copyrights. It's called the Harry Fox Agency. Several years ago the agency threatened legal action against a Web site called OLGA, the On-Line Guitar Archive, which features mostly guitar chord arrangements for popular songs, but also lyrics. Eventually OLGA was forced to eliminate its archives of lyrics.

Fontana counters that plenty of bands not only allow, but encourage, fan-created Web sites. He cites U2 as an example. To demonstrate, he typed in the search words "U2 lyrics" on Yahoo. Twenty-four sites popped up.

A similar search for "Beatles lyrics" produced nearly as many. Fontana was surprised to see that several sites featured the very items Sonnenschein told him were illegal: logos and scanned album covers. Presumably the law firm has more letters to write.

After Fontana got his letter, he fired off an angry e-mail to Dean Solomon, the Sonnenschein employee who signed the letter. No response. He called his Web-hosting company and laid plans for a new site, something not as "stoking" as the original one was, but at least something. (It's at fab4lyrics.stonegauge.com.) Finally, Fontana posted his last hurrah on beatlelyrics.com:

"It's been an honor and a privilege to bring this site to you. Unfortunately, representatives of the Beatles don't seem to recognize that or want that."

He cited a song from the 1969 album, Abbey Road:

“And in the End, the Love you take, is equal to the love you make.”

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