Annick Elzière spent two years and $16,000 penning a cyber-valentine to her hometown of Flemington, posting a Web site that brims with maps, photographs and tips about local places of interest.
The object of her devotions has finally taken notice and responded -- by asking its lawyer to tell her to stop.
"I was just trying to express myself through the Web site to show people how I feel about the town," Elzière said yesterday. "It never occurred to me they would try to do this."
In a tiff that pits freedom of expression against the desires of municipalities to keep control of their good names, the borough has asked Elzière to take down her Web site. The borough has threatened unspecified legal action if she does not dismantle the page by tomorrow, arguing that the unauthorized site may be confused with its own officially sanctioned Web page.
"We have no idea what it could be linked to," Flemington Councilman Joey Novick said. "It may be linked to sites you don't want your children to see or that have a political bent. You want to make sure people know it is not the official Web page."
Borough officials hope to resolve the dispute amicably -- possibly by having Elzière post a more prominent disclaimer than the one her site contains. But it is not clear whether they have any legal recourse.
The dispute involves a murky and rapidly changing area of the law, legal experts say, as rapid advances in technology vault past traditional legal standards on intellectual property.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities' Web site indicates that 318 of New Jersey's 566 municipalities have set up their own sites. But many people like Elzière have set up Web sites of their own that act as guides to their municipalities. Technically, even Flemington's official site -- at www.flemington.net -- is privately owned.
Elzière yesterday vowed not to dismantle her site, which she established almost two years ago. The site -- www.flemington-nj.com -- has a disclaimer stating it does not represent the borough. It even suggests visiting the borough's site.
"I like the area, and it was my way of discovering it," said Elzière. "The more I worked on the site, the more I discovered what was out there, and the more I wanted to share it with people."
Her Flemington pages include color photos of the borough's historic courthouse, lists of coming events, restaurants, maps and businesses. It also contains information on Bahaism, a religious movement that developed in Persia.
"Turn all your thoughts toward bringing joy to hearts. Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart," the site proclaims, quoting Abdu'l Baha.
The site has been updated with links about the legal squabble with the town.
Elzière is the single mother of three teenagers. She left France 24 years ago to work in the United States as an au pair. Elzière, who works as a photographic coordinator for Bristol-Myers Squibb, moved to Flemington in 1991. She said she views the Web site as a hobby.
"My motivation is only to help people communicate and find out what makes our town so special," she said.
In a letter citing federal trademark laws, Borough Attorney Peter Buchsbaum asked Elzière to cease and desist. His letter says the site "improperly misleads the public into believing both it, and consequently its content, are officially endorsed by the Borough of Flemington itself."
The borough's officially sanctioned site is owned by resident Jeff Cogen, who established it voluntarily in 1996 at no cost to the borough. That is why it has the ".net" suffix rather than ".gov," which would signify a governmental site.
The borough's site includes photos, information on the borough government, lists of events and businesses and a forum for residents to comment on various subjects.
The name of Elziere's site has a ".com" suffix, indicating it is in the commercial domain. "Hers looks like it's official, when in fact it's not. That's not to say she doesn't have a right to have hers, but how do we make it clear there is an official Web site for Flemington?" said Mayor Austin Kutscher.
Both sites are registered with a national clearinghouse, InterNIC, but it has no legal authority in the dispute, said Dennis Deutsch, a Hackensack attorney who practices and teaches computer law. He said he was not aware of any case law on this particular subject.
Flemington's case would be stronger if its Web site was in the ".gov" domain, he said. It is unclear who would prevail in a dispute between two private owners of Web sites.
The registration system with InterNIC was created to avoid duplication in domain names, he said.
"It's meant to provide a means to make certain a name hasn't been used before. As to their legal authority, there is none," said Deutsch.
There have been cases in which individuals registered trademarked names for Web sites to "exploit a domain name to extort funds from the trademark holders," said Deutsch. Despite Buchsbaum's reference to federal trademark law, Deutsch said a municipality cannot trademark its name -- otherwise, companies with such names as the Flemington Fur Co. might be in trouble.
"The problem in Flemington is that the name 'Flemington' isn't trademarked," said Deutsch.
Staff writer Fredrick Kunkle contributed to this report.