Zelda Gets Naughty

Thousands of young videogamers with resourceful parents are going to tear the gift-wrap from copies of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the latest in a series of state-of-the-art 3-D adventure games from Nintendo.

The game – one of the season’s hottest – can be as hard to find in time for the holiday as vintage Beanie Babies. The game’s official Web site takes some poking around as well.

Gamers who log onto Zelda.com for information on enhanced play, secret game codes, or earlier Zelda epics such as The Adventure of Link, for instance, will get tips on another kind of indoor sport entirely.

At that URL, a site called Erotic Box Office advertises a photo spread of “shocking pink teens,” illustrated by a photo of three women with more than joysticks on their minds. Kids who realize they’re in the wrong place may find it difficult to click out of the labyrinth of windows opened up automatically by the site.

Erotic Box Office is one of a network of XXX Web sites hosted by Ron Harris, a former fashion photographer for print magazines like Vogue who went multimedia in the early ’80s with Aerobicize, one of the highest-grossing exercise videos of all time.

By packaging the quest for toned buns with coy eroticism and framing it all against a clean white background, Harris created a trademark aesthetic that earned US$25 million from Aerobicize alone.

“Classy does sell,” Harris muses from his house high on the cliffs in Malibu, California.

The question is whether or not Harris’ use of Zelda.com to promote sites like Pussy in Your Face and I Touch Myself impinges on Nintendo’s trademark aesthetic. Not surprisingly, Nintendo’s lawyers say it does.

Last 13 May, Harris’ webmaster, Todd Sims, received a letter from a Nintendo counsel insisting that the Zelda.com domain name be immediately turned over to the game maker.

Harris’ and Sims’ use of the URL was causing “dilution of the distinctive qualities of Nintendo’s famous mark,” the letter advised.

“Indeed,” it added, “consumers have accessed your Internet site expecting to find material relating to Nintendo’s Zelda, only to find your pornographic materials.”

Harris’ lawyer, Richard Nye, responded that his client didn’t intend to surrender Zelda.com. “They didn’t have much of a position,” Nye says. After a couple of exchanges, and an offer from Harris to give up the domain for an undisclosed amount, Nye recalls, “that was kind of the end of it.”

The hit counts at Erotic Box Office have been benefiting from the Nintendo Christmas marketing push, though Sims plays coy about that.

“Why do you think our hits are so good?” Sims says – though he chalks most of the traffic up to his own promotional efforts. Sims, who is working his way through college on the income generated by the sites, first attracted his employer’s attention by exploiting search-engine algorithms to rank Harris’ URLs at the top of the list for common searches.

Even without the hype, Zelda: Ocarina of Time would sell itself, says Vince Broady, editorial director of Gamespot.

“We gave it the highest score we ever gave to a game: ‘perfect,'” says Broady. “It’s got great stories, great game playing, and it’s highly accessible. It’s arguably the best videogame ever made.”

Starting with the first release of The Legend of Zelda in 1985, Nintendo has used the series as its flagship product, using Zelda to highlight the latest upgrades in gaming technology.

“Zelda.com” was up for grabs, however, on 2 January 1998 – the day Sims registered it.

Sims, Harris, and Nye all believe they have Nintendo beat because, as Nye put it, “it’s very hard to trademark proper names.”

“They may have ‘the legend of Zelda’ trademarked, but just ‘Zelda?’ That would be like trademarking ‘Todd’ or ‘Steve’,” says Sims.

An attorney at the United States Patent and Trademark Office disagrees. She points out that only surnames are routinely excluded from trademark registration, to prevent the owner of the Smith Widget Corporation from locking all Smiths out of christening the family business with the family name.

Nintendo spokesperson Beth Llewelyn says that the company holds a trademark on the name Zelda “in several countries” – though not, apparently, in the United States – and that the company will allow the ultimate decision to be made by Internic.

“Everything is in place. The process is happening,” she says.

Unlike other domains that are in dispute, however – such as quake.com – Zelda.com is not listed as “on hold” by Internic.

Though many Nintendo-buying moms might not think much of Harris’ sites (“girls you want to punch in the face,” touts one link on Erotic Box Office), the self-proclaimed “King of Jiggle” sees himself as a standard-bearer in an online industry that’s coming of age.

Monday, Harris announced a partnership program with Internet billing firm CCBill to ensure that webmasters who run Harris’ banners on their sites won’t be subjected to the same “shaved” payouts that have afflicted XPics clients.

While Harris’ sites are undeniably raunchy, the former Revlon photographer – who has written a book called Women Are Stronger Than Men – maintains his own sense of propriety.

“All those sites out there are just getting harder and harder, freakier and freakier,” he says. “We have the cleanest erotic sites on the Net.”