Her Aimster Is True: With Young Spokesmodel, Internet Firm Battles Legal, Money Woes

On a warm night last April, a 16-year-old blonde named Aimee Deep stepped onto the red carpet at the Paris Theater on West 58th Street for the premiere of The Golden Bowl , the new Merchant-Ivory film starring Uma Thurman. Dressed in tight Chloé blue jeans and a white Calvin Klein T-shirt, Ms. Deep immediately grabbed the attention of the paparazzi, who began shooting her as if she were a movie star .

” Aimee-ee , come back!” the photographers shouted after Ms. Deep passed by once. “We need more, Aimee-ee !”

With the approval of her publicist, Matthew Rich, Ms. Deep obliged and posed some more. By now she was holding up Ms. Thurman, who stood next to her limousine, waiting to take her own red-carpet stroll. Irritated, one of the movie’s publicists called out to Mr. Rich: “Get your property off my red carpet– now !”

A couple days later, Page Six ran a flattering photo of Ms. Deep from the Golden Bowl premiere, noting that she “stole the show” and “caught the eye of Quentin Tarantino.” It was a heady burst of attention for a young woman who had until recently been leading a rather normal teenage life as Madeline Deep, a high-school sophomore in Cohoes, N.Y.–a town so sleepy that its residents refer to Albany as “the city.”

But this had been the plan. In a scant few weeks, Madeline had been transformed into vampy Aimee–the come-hither face of Aimster, a music-swapping Internet program that hoped to bite off a chunk of the market commandeered by Napster, its popular yet embattled predecessor. People arriving at Aimster.com were greeted by a photograph of Ms. Deep in a slinky black Galliano dress and Manolo Blahnik heels; elsewhere, in the Web site’s “Aimee Fan Club” section, Ms. Deep could be observed wearing a teeny-weeny white bikini. Oh–and you could download music, too.

Companies have long used underage sex symbols to sell products, of course; Calvin Klein had Brooke Shields, Pepsi now has Britney Spears. But Aimster wasn’t a Fortune 500 company–not by a long shot. Aimster was a new company run by … Ms. Deep’s father, Johnny, out of the Deep family’s suburban home in upstate New York.

Using his daughter’s sex appeal, Mr. Deep hoped to manipulate the media, attract publicity and lure music lovers to Aimster. It was a 21st-century strategy of dot-com attention-grabbing, one that he thought might make his family rich one day. But in short order, heavyweights like the Recording Industry Association of American and America Online would have something to say about that.

Johnny Deep is a tall, lean man of 44, whose brown hair and thick-framed glasses give him the appearance of an absent-minded high-school physics teacher. Born in Cohoes, Mr. Deep attended Harvard. After graduation, he worked as a computer programmer and eventually wrote a few reference books, among them The Complete MCSE Networking Essentials Training Course and The Complete Oracle DBA Training Course . He also wrote a humor book in 1997 entitled The Complete Geek (An Operating Manual).

Like nearly everyone in computer science, Mr. Deep was attracted to the Internet. In the mid-1990’s, he started a technology firm, Intranaut, which adapted computer-training books into Web sites. He also headed up a venture entitled BuddyUSA–an instant-messaging software package. Today, however, Intranaut is defunct, and Mr. Deep said he turned control of BuddyUSA over to the original investors–he would not discuss the terms of the deal–and licenses the instant-messaging software for use in Aimster.

But the idea behind Aimster was all Aimee’s, Mr. Deep said. He explained this over lunch in early June with a reporter at Café des Artistes–a lunch also attended by Aimee and Mr. Rich, her publicist.

According to Mr. Deep, Aimee was, like a lot of teens her age, a fanatic of instant-messaging–programs that allow computer users to conduct real-time typewritten conversations at a rate much faster than traditional e-mail. But Aimee, her father said, was concerned about hackers eavesdropping on her messaging sessions with friends and asked him if it would be possible to create a program that would prevent such invasions. Intrigued, Mr. Deep began working with some high-school and college students. He developed a privacy program that effectively encrypted instant-messaging and then founded BuddyUSA to market it.

But as he worked on his encryption program, Mr. Deep also added a way for instant-messaging users to send files to other people–songs, movies, photographs. This was the genesis of Aimster. Unlike Napster, Mr. Deep’s file-swapping program did not rely on any centralized server to keep track of who’s sharing what. This was critical: Many of Napster’s legal troubles stemmed from its centralized server, which critics claimed was a gross violation of copyright protections, since it warehoused file information without permission or payment. But without a centralized server, Aimster (as well as other decentralized swapping programs like Gnutella and LimeWire) could argue that it simply provided a means for private citizens to exchange personal files, like kids trading cassette tapes at homeroom.

Mr. Deep felt he had a good program with Aimster–but in a hypercompetitive marketplace, he needed a good way to market it. First he tried a fairly homespun approach. When Aimster launched in August 2000, the home page contained a photograph of Mr. Deep’s daughter–then still known as Madeline–wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Madeline looked innocent and a little awkward–in other words, just like any other 15-year-old girl.

But that approach changed in April, soon after Ms. Deep turned 16. Down went awkward Madeline and up went Aimee in her slinky Galliano, in a photo shot by photographer Joe Gaffney. There was also a new slogan: “Can’t touch this!” Immediately, visitors to the site began fiercely debating Aimee’s new look. Most of the criticism went to Mr. Deep. “Kind of creapy [sic],” “innapropriate [sic]” and “disgusting” were the milder terms. Others were more venomous–one user headlined his comment as “pimping your child.”

Mr. Deep seemed untroubled by the decision to update his daughter’s image. “I think her mom and I both have our own views, but we’ve decided that when she turned 16 she could pursue a career,” he said. “And I think her career so far is not all that different from careers of other girls her age.”

Besides, Mr. Deep’s strategy was working. Time had featured Aimee and Johnny Deep in its May 28 “Innovators” issue, with a big photo of Ms. Deep listening to headphones while dad sat nearby. Teen Vogue had brought her into the Condé Nast cafeteria for an interview. The Fox News Channel and a multitude of local news stations and newspapers had already interviewed Ms. Deep, too.

Dressed that afternoon in a black camisole and sweater along with reptile-print leather pants, Ms. Deep sounded dismayed by the suggestion that anyone would be troubled by her image overhaul.

“I don’t really understand what point they’re fighting,” she said, responding to the negative chatter on her Web site. “I mean, I really like what I’m doing, so I’m just happy I got the opportunity. I don’t know–I’m not good with fighting.”

Besides, it was clear that the post-Madeline Aimee was enjoying all the fuss. At a recent party, Ms. Deep had met Heath Ledger, the teen heart-throb star of A Knight’s Tale , and she had also been recognized by a stranger on a train to Cohoes. (“That was so-oo awesome,” she said.) Later, everyone at the table laughed recalling a certain aging movie star who’d made a flirtatious advance to Aimee at a book party.

That afternoon Ms. Deep had an appointment to get her hair done, and then she was going to check out an apartment on Central Park West. “I like the ride I’m riding right now,” she said.

Ms. Deep laughed lightly, nervously. She had the bearing of a teenager who has learned how to speak around adults–delivering short, clipped responses that answer the question, but volunteering little else. Asked what sort of music she listened to, Ms. Deep said, “I like tons of music, everything from Dixie Chicks … I love Faith Hill. I don’t know–Britney Spears.” On her performance in school, she said: “They’re good grades.”

All the while Johnny Deep looked on, a father proud of his budding spokes-daughter. “She could have done [this] much sooner,” he said.

But a moment later, Mr. Deep sounded a rare note of restraint. “The site was up when she was only 15, but we didn’t let her do it then because, I don’t know, it was between her mom and I. We didn’t think it was time yet,” he said. “As parents, you have a different view about things. As a parent, you’re trying to think, ‘I don’t know if she should be doing that.'”

By late spring, however, Mr. Deep had bigger worries with Aimster than the appropriateness of his daughter’s footwear. Aimee’s coming-out party had been closely followed by a surge of complaints from competitors threatening to shut the company down–barely after it had gotten started.

These complainants were the biggest of bigfoots. America Online, the world’s largest Internet-service provider, was claiming that Aimster’s name derived from AOL’s instant-messaging program, America Online Instant Messenger or AIM. For his part, Mr. Deep maintained that Aimster was named not after AIM–the most widely used messaging service–but rather his daughter Aimee, who before the advent of Aimster was known as Madeline. Mr. Deep has also argued that he’s using “aim” in the ready-aim-fire sense of the word and has never mentioned America Online or AIM in his marketing. “Aimster is a common enough word,” Mr. Deep said, “and ‘aim’ itself as a targeting mechanism is a very common word, [so] AIM, the acronym, can’t possibly have a confusing similarity to those common words.”

In May, however, an arbitrator sided with AOL, ordering Aimster to stop using the Aimster.com Internet address. In early June, AOL and Aimster each filed lawsuits in Virginia asking the federal courts to clear up the trademark matter.

More ominously, the Deeps found themselves engaged in an increasingly volatile battle with the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA had already succeeded in severely crippling Napster, getting a court to force the site to install “blocking” software that significantly reduced its inventory.

In May the RIAA, on behalf of music companies BMG Entertainment, EMI, Universal Music Group and Sony, filed suit against Aimster in U.S. federal court in Manhattan, arguing that Mr. Deep’s technology is–like Napster before it–another method for Internet users to illegally trade copyrighted music.

By July, the total number of companies that have sued Aimster increased to more than 30, as the major movie studios represented by the Motion Picture Association–including Columbia, Disney, MGM, Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox and Universal City Studios–as well as the songwriters represented by the National Music Publishers’ Association filed their own suits.

To argue his case, Mr. Deep enlisted David Boies, Napster’s lawyer, whom he and Aimee had met at the counselor’s 60th birthday party at the Rainbow Room. Currently the two sides are trying to sort out whether the suit should be heard in Manhattan or Albany.

“I was naturally a little reluctant to get involved in the Napster and Aimster cases because I was busy with other matters, but I was convinced that these are important matters,” Mr. Boies said.

Fundamentally, Mr. Boies said, the case raises the issue of whether Internet-service providers will be held responsible for making sure that users don’t use their modems to violate copyright–or, as he put it, “whether the mail service has to open the mail to make sure that someone isn’t sending something they shouldn’t.”

At lunch at Café des Artistes, Mr. Deep maintained that there were substantive differences between Aimster and Napster. For instance, he claimed that unlike Napster–which acts as a traffic cop between people who want to swap music–his software doesn’t keep track of what files people are sharing. He argued that copyright law allows people to make copies of the music they own for their friends, so why not for the folks on their instant-messaging service, too? (Aimster, though, does allow you to swap music with people you’ve never met before, even if you don’t have an instant-messaging account.)

Besides, Mr. Deep argued, preventing people from swapping copyrighted material would require monitoring the files they trade. “Do you have the right in your own home to privacy on your personal computer?” Mr. Deep asked. “Or can people come and spy on your computer?”

How Mr. Deep would fund these legal battles was uncertain, however. Napster had raised $75 million worth of funding from a venture-capital firm and Bertelsmann–plenty of cash to ride out a legal storm. For his part, Mr. Deep was much more circumspect about the backing behind his company, though he acknowledged that his primary investor was himself.

Asked if he was worried about being buried, Mr. Deep said, “I’m not, actually. I suppose I should be, eh? No, I look at this as: We’ll do whatever it takes to have this come out in the only way that seems fair.

“We’re looking into launching a legal fund,” Mr. Deep added. “There’s gotta be a way to do it. I don’t know what the solution is right now, but there’s gotta be ways to do it. All the legal fees will be paid.”

Just a handful of days after that conversation, Aimster’s future seemed far less certain.

About a week after that lunch gathering at Café des Artistes, Aimster’s publicist, Mr. Rich–the man who had walked Aimee up the red carpet at the Paris Theater–said he was no longer representing the Web site.

“We are on hiatus from that account,” Mr. Rich said, adding the decision was his own. “I still believe in the client’s product and the spokesperson, Aimee Deep, but my firm’s contractual needs were not being met.” Mr. Rich declined to comment further.

Others who had worked for Aimster told The Observer they had encountered difficulty getting paid by Mr. Deep. Barbara Camp, the makeup artist who worked with Ms. Deep on that shoot, said she had been paid for her work, but only after several delays and one bounced personal check from Mr. Deep. (Mr. Deep later wired the money to Ms. Camp’s account.) On June 14, Joe Gaffney–who took the photos of Ms. Deep on the site–said he hadn’t been paid for his work, which had been done in March.

“You can’t decide to promote your daughter as Miss Teen America and expect others to pay for it,” Mr. Gaffney said. “I personally fronted a lot of equipment and |material. I’m out of pocket considerably.” The next day, however, Mr. Gaffney called back to say that he had reached payment terms with Mr. Deep–and to request that his name be taken out of this article.

Pam Zarit, a media consultant who helped prep Ms. Deep for interviews in March, said she hadn’t been paid for her work, either. “From the point of view of a professional, it’s not appropriate to not be paid,” she said. Ms. Zarit said that she began to get concerned about her invoice when she hadn’t been paid in 30 days. “When that didn’t happen, I started calling [Mr. Deep]. It became evident that they were putting me off. I’m hoping they step up,” Ms. Zarit said.

Reached for comment on July 9, Mr. Deep refused to discuss any of the details of his business relationships–although he suggested at one point that the debts were

not his. He added: “I just don’t want to talk about it. It’s like ancient history, and there’s nothing interesting to say about it. The only thing that’s interesting, I think, is that in the most difficult possible circumstances, a small plucky company has been able to keep everyone happy and continue operating, and all these people will tell you, when you talk to them, that they’re all looking forward to working with us again.”

As for Aimee Deep, she forges on. Without the publicist and stylists and fancy fashion photographers, she probably won’t get her photograph in Page Six anymore, won’t be hanging out with Health Ledger, won’t become the next Shawn Fanning. Sure, she “liked the ride” she was riding, as she put it at lunch that afternoon. But that day, Aimee Deep sounded like someone who’d recover quite nicely if her and her father’s dot-com dreams were to come to a sudden end.

“Cheerleading camp starts in like a month,” Ms. Deep said. “That’s for a week–and I’m really excited about that.”