$1.1m to keep Internet heroine's clothes on

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IS ONE MILLION dollars enough money to stop Lara Croft, the improbably pneumatic gun-toting cult heroine of the Tomb Raider computer games, taking off her clothes?

It should be, according to Core Design, creator of the heroine who has become an icon to thousands of teenagers.The Derby-based company is suing an American website for $1.1m (pounds 687,500), , which featured hundreds of computer-generated pictures of Ms Croft in the flesh, so to speak.

In fact, Core Design would like to rid the Internet of all pictures purporting to show naked versions of Ms Croft - who is a Cheltenham-educated Egyptologist, according to her mythical CV.

There may be thousands, as a quick search suggests - the key words of "Lara Croft" and "naked" offer 14,600 web pages. But the site was different, because it contained game players' own renditions of Ms Croft, rather than being a come-on to a pornography site.

The writ against the owner of , Joel Williams, and the company whose computers held the website, threatens to bring a huge lawsuit for breach of copyright. Mr Williams claims that the threat infringes freedom of expression, and that Core Design is biting the hands that feed it: since the site was launched in 1998, he claims, it has been visited by 6.5 million web surfers who are eager fans of Ms Croft.

"This site was created for the fans to showcase THEIR fantasy artwork," he says in a message on the site (which no longer carries the pictures). We provided the FREE ARCHIVE for the fans to express their love and fascination for their favourite fantasy woman.

"Yes, the artwork was of an adult nature and for mature audiences only; but the only people who visited this site were FANS of the GAME. If you didn't play the game, you couldn't care less about this web site."

Whether Core Design can win the case will hinge on whether it owns the rights to all representations of Ms Croft - including the naked ones.

A spokeswoman said: "We own the copyright on all forms of her image; if somebody wants to alter it, whether it's to put a cigar in her hand or take her clothes off, they have to get our permission."

Mr Williams has won considerable support from viewers: "They should hire you guys. You've done more to promote their game then you needed to," said one message.

Core Design added: "We don't want Lara to be associated with pornographic material. We have a large number of young fans and we don't want them stumbling across the pictures when they do a general search for Tomb Raider - or finding sites which are linked to other pornographic pictures. It's completely irresponsible."