Call it a close encounter–of the legal kind.

A dispute over a popular science web site created by the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pitting academics against people from the worlds of television and the law.

Attorneys for the Fox Network are demanding that the university close its web site “The Why Files,” a 5-year-old site that explores the science behind the news.

The network claims the site confuses consumers and infringes on its trademarked television show “The X-Files,” the popular 7-year-old program about FBI agents who encounter aliens.

“If you haven’t been abducted by aliens recently or had some type of mind-altering experience, there is absolutely no way you could confuse, ‘The Why Files,’ and ‘The X-Files,'” said Terry Devitt, The Why Files editor and program coordinator.

But since January 2000, lawyers for Fox have been sending letters to UW officials, demanding they stop using the name.

“The web site clearly uses a play on words to trade off on the goodwill of our client’s trademark,” a Fox attorney wrote in an Aug. 4 letter. “While our client appreciates the educational value of your web site, Fox cannot afford to permit others to lessen the distinctiveness of ‘The X-Files.'”

Fox Network officials and their attorney did not immediately return phone calls by the Associated Press (AP).

“I’m not sure if Fox is trying to get a legal hammerlock on the alphabet or what their motives are, but that’s what it seems,” Devitt told AP Jan. 17.

“The Why Files” has developed a following, receiving 19 awards from organizations that review internet sites. In April 1999, eSchool News recognized the site in its Netwatch section, which highlights its top picks for instructional resources on the web. Devitt said at least 120,000 people visit the site each month, including several K-12 teachers and students.

At press time, the site featured information about earthquakes, oil and natural gas, and snow.

Both “The X-Files” and The Why Files are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Lawyers for Fox have offered to settle the case if the university surrenders its trademark to Fox. The company said it would be willing to license the name to the university under “appropriate restrictions.”

University officials so far have refused to do that, but they have offered not to expand “The Why Files” into the areas of science fiction and the supernatural.

Fox lawyers rejected that offer and have said they will start legal action seeking to cancel “The Why Files.”


“The Why Files”

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Fox Network