Ten years ago, David Brooks, a computer programmer in Toronto, came across a passing reference to the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh in one of Frank Herbert's ''Dune'' novels. In the book, which takes place in the future, one of the few artifacts of civilization to survive global destruction is the van Gogh painting ''Thatched Cottages at Cordeville.''
Intrigued by the reference, Mr. Brooks made a point of reading up on van Gogh and seeing the painting on a visit to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. ''That was the clincher,'' he said.
Van Gogh's art, the letters he sent and, of course, the narrative of a misunderstood artist who sold only one painting during his lifetime and committed suicide, all conspired to convert Mr. Brooks, 36, from an interested observer into a passionate Van Gogh autodidact.
Five years ago, Mr. Brooks took his preoccupation with van Gogh to the Web. He is the creator of the comprehensive and carefully constructed Vincent van Gogh Gallery (www.vangoghgallery.com). Mr. Brooks painstakingly scanned and digitally mounted reproductions of every one of van Gogh's remaining 2,200 paintings, sketches, watercolors and drawings, often searching through obscure auction catalogues to find the best possible images. He also made a point to include texts of all of the artist's 864 surviving letters, which, Mr. Brooks said, ''stand on their own as works of art.''
Mr. Brooks's site has enjoyed some critical and popular success. It draws 35,000 visitors a week, and Mr. Brooks developed collegial ties with van Gogh experts and scholars around the globe. Heidi Vandamme, a representative of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, wrote in an e-mail message that ''we at the museum have always greatly admired and valued the contribution David Brooks has made.''
Last year, Mr. Brooks left his job at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to devote himself to the site full time. An Internet-based poster shop in Boston agreed to sponsor the site, and for the first time Mr. Brooks began earning a small amount of income from banner ads. He also entered into an agreement with a Dutch-based company named On-Site to publish his database as a CD-ROM. It looked like his dream of making a living as a van Gogh researcher was about to come true.
That was until an e-mail message arrived last December, from a friend at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. ''She said, 'I found this Web site, and I think the person is using a lot of your material, you'd better have a look,' '' Mr. Brooks recalled.
Mr. Brooks said he was flabbergasted to discover that all the art images and all the letters appeared to have been copied from his site and reposted on About Van Gogh Art (www.about-van-gogh-art.com), a commercial site that sells everything from van Gogh lunch boxes to reproductions painted in China. Mr. Brooks recognized much of the digital work as his own.
''I probably have about 15 images that you simply can't find anywhere in color,'' he said, ''and I found them on this guy's Web site, the same size, pixel for pixel.''
To Mr. Brooks, this was the digital-age equivalent of an art heist. But what he discovered is that copying Web sites is not only easily accomplished, it can also be legal.
The images he collected and posted had entered the public domain 70 years (50 years in Canada) after van Gogh's death in 1890. Mr. Brooks did receive written permission from his print sources before scanning the images onto his own site, but under current copyright laws, the images are fair game for anyone to reproduce.
Mr. Brooks said it took five years for him to build his site, but ''the man who stole my site was able to do it in a matter of two hours.''
The battle of the van Gogh Web sites highlights a type of dispute that is increasingly common in the age of digital reproduction. David J. Powsner, an intellectual property lawyer with the Boston firm of Nutter, McClennen & Fish, said that although standard copyright law pertains to Web site content just as it would to any other medium, there's a widespread assumption that ''you can simply copy things off the Web.''
After discovering About Van Gogh Art, Mr. Brooks called the site's owner to complain. The owner turned out to be Ernst Coors, a tennis instructor turned entrepreneur in Amsterdam, who hopes that van Gogh will be just the first of a roster of Dutch artists featured on his site. According to Mr. Brooks, their conversations began pleasantly enough, with Mr. Coors reporting that he had hired four British university students to build the site and promising to look into how they found their images. But Mr. Brooks says that as he pressed Mr. Coors further, the conversations turned increasingly nasty. He says Mr. Coors asserted that he had some ''tricks'' up his sleeve and that if Mr. Brooks continued to press the issue, he could shut down Mr. Brooks's site.
Mr. Coors, reached by telephone from Amsterdam, disputed Mr. Brooks's version of the conversations. ''I never said anything like that,'' Mr. Coors said. ''I was open all the time to work with him but all he wanted to do was shut down the site.''
Mr. Coors's lawyer, Christiaan Alberdingk Thijm, conceded that some of the work on About Van Gogh Art was taken from Mr. Brooks's site. But he added that Mr. Coors did nothing wrong and that Mr. Brooks is trying to exert rights over material he doesn't own. ''He may have invested in obtaining the information, but it doesn't mean that it's rightfully his,'' the lawyer said. ''He can't own information.''
Mr. Coors did eventually remove the copied texts of van Gogh's letters from his site after Mr. Alberdingk Thijm advised him that as translations, they were protected by copyright law.
After his conversations with Mr. Coors, Mr. Brooks tried fighting back in various ways. ''My site has had three million visitors,'' he said, ''so you do tend to get a lot of loyal followers.'' As word of the rival site spread, some fans of his recommended lawyers. When Mr. Coors's site opened an online discussion forum, Mr. Brooks took the opportunity to issue a battle cry. ''I wrote, 'Here's a topic of discussion: the ethics of stealing someone else's work and presenting it as your own.' '' His followers took up the thread, which stayed up for about three days before it was removed.
Mr. Brooks has also gotten in touch with search engines and the Texas-based company that is the host of Mr. Coors's Web site, to ask them to stop listing or carrying the site. The AltaVista search site responded to his request by saying the company was ''not in the business of determining the copyright validity of the sites that are included in the AV search index.''
Mr. Brooks recently hired a lawyer in the Netherlands, Olaf Schauten, in an effort to force Mr. Coors's Web site to remove any of his images on the grounds of database copyright infringement -- unlike the United States, European Union countries have adopted laws designed to protect databases -- and with interfering with the generation of income that Mr. Brooks anticipates from the sale of his CD-ROM.
Mr. Powsner, the lawyer in Boston, said that these cases often come down to money and persistence. ''It's been my experience that those who are willing to say, 'I'm right and I'll pay the tens of thousands of dollars to defend my rights' can often be the de facto winners,'' he said.
Mr. Alberdingk Thijm said that if Mr. Brooks continued to make a fuss about Mr. Coors's site, he would advise his client to sue Mr. Brooks ''to stop him from spreading these slanderous and libelous things.''
Mr. Brooks said that he is keen to pursue the case even though he cannot afford a costly legal fight. And he may be getting some satisfaction: he said yesterday that some of the contested images had either been removed or replaced.
''It's a very personal and emotional issue for me,'' Mr. Brooks said. ''The Internet is a great place. I like the fact that a 7-year-old schoolgirl in Sydney, Australia, can see a van Gogh work that she wouldn't have been able to otherwise. But a lot of bad things are going on, too.''