Jun 16, 2019

Meet Dennis Wilson, Internet Sheriff

Juan Villa / The Collegian

Dennis L. Wilson, the man who has become known in the legal world as “the sheriff of the Internet,” visited Fresno State on Tuesday to enlighten many on the nature of online law.

In 1988, Wilson graduated from Fresno State, having never even met a lawyer or taken a debate class. At the time, he had a degree in English literature and a minor in economics, but found his niche in studying law.

Since that time, he received his J.D. at the Southern California Law Center, served as a partner in the offices of Baker and Hostetler and co-founded the Beverly Hills firm, Keats, McFarland & Wilson.

The world-renowned law firm specializes in intellectual property suits and has served major brands such as Nike, Calvin Klein and Sony.

Wilson’s visit to the campus on Tuesday included a question and answer session before a media ethics class, a filmed interview in the campus TV studio and a lecture hosted by the College of Arts and Humanities as part of their Distinguished Lecture series.

Speaking to the media ethics students, Wilson discussed, among other things, security under the law as it pertained to the Internet. Two primary forms of infringement, whether online or otherwise, Wilson pointed out, were copyright violations and inappropriate uses of trademarks.

Copyright laws, he said, protect the unique expression of ideas in society and provide some incentive to the people who generate those ideas.

“We want to encourage people to create things and benefit from it,” Wilson said.

He explained that trademark laws are put in place to protect brand names, logos or any other indicator that would identify a business or organization.

“If I open ‘Dennis Wilson’ restaurant and make my name great,” Wilson posed as an example, “someone can’t open a restaurant down the street and call it ‘Dennis Wilson.”

Wilson first began dealing with online infringement in 1995, when he was assigned to a case involving lewd reproductions of cartoon characters being distributed over the Internet. At the time, he didn’t even know what the Internet was.

Now, Wilson directs several online protection programs for many major entertainment and fashion companies and he has also represented some notable celebrities. Often, his work requires him to travel overseas to pursue problems at their source.

Todd Bowen, instructor of media law at Fresno State, said that there is a lot of career opportunities surrounding the kind of work that Wilson does, especially in regards to the media and public relations. He stressed the importance of knowing the law not only as it pertains to mass communications, but as it relates to any area where influencing others is at stake.

“I really think the technical name ought to be communications law,” Bowen said. He added that studying media law is good practice in case someone is ever interested in a career in law.

Wilson thanks his college English classes for instilling him with a knack for writing, as well as an intense passion for reading. One of the most noteworthy influences he had during his time at Fresno State was an instructor, Judith Rosenthal, who assigned him an exhaustive reading list even after graduation.

Still, even if the list were to run out, there is always one constant thing –– stories on the Internet. As Wilson shared, some of the content, if Google searched, is about him –– and it isn’t always positive.

Because Wilson has been responsible for the termination of many online sites and has prevented untold amounts of material from being released on the Internet, Wilson has earned a fair share of negative criticism. Many web sites openly berate him for being too aggressive. To him, it just goes with the territory.

“My favorite has a cartoon character walking across the screen and peeing on my name,” said Wilson, admiring some of the creativity that has gone into the efforts to soil his reputation.

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