Reel China: Hollywood Seeks Workarounds for Import Restrictions

  • Hollywood continues its frustration with the Chinese government’s limits on how many imported movies can play in its theaters in addition to how box office receipts are shared. Now, prominent American film producers are seeking change through ambitious deals that provide alternative routes into China’s market.
  • Success with the Chinese may prove crucial. With traditional distribution models such as DVD sales presently slumping, China could become a much-needed revenue source.
  • “It’s not about détente, it’s about making money,” suggests the Los Angeles Times. “The partnerships give the American firms better access to the country’s growing movie market.”
  • According to the LA Times report: “China’s box-office receipts surged 64 percent last year to a record $1.5 billion, and they will likely bring in about $2 billion in ticket sales this year. By the end of the decade, industry experts predict China will grow from the world’s No. 5 movie market to No. 1.”
  • Although lobbyists and the World Trade Organization have been unsuccessful in getting the Chinese to relax import restrictions, smaller American film companies such as Legendary and Relativity are partnering with Chinese-based companies in co-production and exhibition deals. Through the partnerships, companies are not subject to restrictions and find they can dramatically improve upon percentage of box office receipts.
  • Major Hollywood studios have not formed long-term partnerships to co-produce with Chinese firms, but have discovered other alternatives, such as making Mandarin-language productions in China and pushing digital product, including 3D: “To boost the rollout of high-tech projectors in the country’s theaters, China in 2007 began allowing several pictures per year into the country on a revenue-share basis if they played only in digital theaters.”
  • The ultimate goal is to eliminate the restrictions, but for the time being Hollywood is finding ways to work around them.

Judge Rules Against MP3tunes: Hollow Victory for Record Labels?

  • While a judge has ruled against MP3tunes and founder, Michael Robertson, for copyright infringement, the details of the ruling may provide online music locker businesses like those from Google and Amazon with a better legal foundation.
  • A key finding is that users, not MP3tunes, had the ability to determine which files were placed in their lockers.
  • Also, it was determined that DMCA does not require one to investigate potentially infringing activity without a specific complaint from copyright holders.
  • “The news is even better for Google and Amazon,” according to Ars Technica. “Those companies’ music locker services do not even offer the broad sideloading functionality that has caused Robertson legal headaches. So if Judge Pauley’s reasoning survives appeal, Google and Amazon will be on solid legal ground. Indeed, those companies may even want to start thinking about whether they’ve been too cautious. For example, they might save a lot of money by taking advantage of the deduplication part of the ruling.”

iOS Developers Unite Against Lodsys and Patent Trolls

  • Renowned iOS developer Mike Lee announced on Monday a new venture called Appsterdam Legal Defense Team that will band together the small developers to fight against patent trolls.
  • Ars Technica reports: “The goal, aside from the obvious one of being free from frivolous patent lawsuits, is to become ‘the ants of East Texas, minding their business until someone invades their anthill.'”
  • Apple has licensed patents from Lodsys, which it says covers third party developers — but the infringement claims against iOS developers are continuing.
  • The result is uncertainty that could imperil these smaller developers and the developer community generally, not only for Apple but for Android and other platforms.
  • “This is bigger than just Apple platforms,” explains Lee. “Apple has the luxury and history of moving very slowly — they accepted a 60 day discovery, for example. Dozens of app makers could be destroyed by then. There is also good chance Apple can’t actually sue Lodsys, since Apple is under contract by Intellectual Ventures and IV probably snuck indemnity in there.”
  • “We’re going after Lodsys for sure, but understand the ultimate target is Intellectual Ventures,” Lee added. “They are the Mordor to these trolls.”

Hollywood Studios Win Preliminary Injunction Against Zediva

  • A U.S. District judge in Los Angeles issued a preliminary injunction against Zediva, favoring the Motion Picture Association of America in its copyright infringement lawsuit.
  • Dan Robbins, senior VP for the MPAA, calls the decision a great victory for workers in the film and television industry.
  • Zediva streams recently released DVDs to customers and claims it is no different than a brick-and-mortar rental service but operates over the Internet.
  • Judge John Walter concluded that Zediva violates the “transmit” clause of the Copyright Act. Zediva will appeal the decision.

ISPs Agree to Voluntary Copyright Enforcement Plan

  • Hollywood studios and music recording labels announced an agreement with major ISPs including AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon in which the ISPs agree to send “copyright alerts” to consumers who have accessed pirated content.
  • The intention is to educate, not punish.
  • A 2007 study showed that a “large majority” of those who receive alerts will stop the illegal activity.
  • If the alerts have no effect, mitigation measures may be pursued. Consumers will have the option of an independent review for a $35 fee.
  • Mitigation measures begin with the fifth or sixth alert, and may include: “temporary reductions of Internet speeds, redirection to a landing page until the subscriber contacts the ISP to discuss the matter or reviews and responds to some educational information about copyright, or other measures that the ISP may deem necessary to help resolve the matter.”

Law Professors Argue that Protect IP Act is Unconstitutional

  • Some 90 law professors have signed a joint letter opposing the Protect IP Act which is intended to deal with copyright infringement. The Act is currently being reviewed by Congress.
  • The letter contends that the Act’s domain-blocking provisions can be viewed as Internet censorship, which is barred by the First Amendment.
  • “The Act would allow courts to order any Internet service to stop recognizing [a] site even on a temporary restraining order… issued the same day the complaint is filed” without allowing for an adversary proceeding, which has been required by the Supreme Court.
  • Moreover, blocking an entire domain when infringing material exists in a subdomain is equivalent to “burning the house to roast the pig.”

Zediva: Simple Rental Solution or Copyright Violation?

David Pogue of the New York Times writes that we are in a fascinating transitional period from physical media to streaming services, but that accessing streaming movies from our TVs, laptops and phones comes with a price. For example, we are missing some of the DVD features including subtitles, multiple languages and director’s commentary. We are also restricted regarding when we have access to some streaming content and how long our subscription or per-title fee allows us to view a specific title.

In response to these concerns, Pogue mentions a new streaming service named Zediva.com that provides subtitle, language and commentary options in addition to some surprising (and perhaps disturbing, for the content creators and distributors) business model features. Rented movies are available for two weeks instead of 24 hours, current titles are available the same day as DVD releases, and there are no hardware or subscription fees — simply a rental charge of $2 per movie.

The process is simple. Zediva has set up hundreds of DVD players in its California data center; the company purchases dozens of copies of current releases and makes them available to consumers. As Pogue writes: “The DVD is simply sending you the audio and video signals, as if it were connected to your home with a really, really long cable.”

Of course, content creators and distributors may have issue with this approach. In related news, the MPAA has filed a lawsuit against Zediva (since Pogue’s article), claiming that the company is violating copyright law by streaming DVDs. While the company bills itself as a movie-rental service, comparing its service with companies like Netflix that purchase hundreds of copies of popular movies and then mailing them to renters, the MPAA’s lawyers argue the service is a form of “public performance” that would require a license.

Related Wall Street Journal article: “Hollywood Studios Sue Start-Up Zediva” (4/4/11)

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