Monthly Archives: February 2009

Sign of the “Times”

The press often finds itself defending legal actions, either in libel or privacy cases, but it’s comparatively rare to see a major publication issuing proceedings against a company about whom they write. The Financial Times, however, is currently suing the Blackstone Group in New York in a dispute that hinges on one major issue: Copyright Infringement.

The FT allege that Blackstone have allowed several employees to use one login and password to access thousands of articles from the website FT.com, instead of paying for each individual user. Up to 100 of Blackstone’s employees are also named in the action, according to papers filed in Manhattan’s Federal District Court, which alleges copyright infringement as well as “computer fraud”.

Although this is a US case, the principles can be applied to UK Law. Basically, when anyone signs up to a paid service such as FT.com, you are effectively buying a personal license for one user to view material which the FT has created for their website and which is protected by copyright.

Anyone who copies the website’s content is liable for copyright infringement, and accessing paid sections of the site from more than one PC will almost certainly count. It may well be common practice in industry to have several employees using one login on paid sites such as FT.com, but that doesn’t make it legal. If nothing else, it’s almost certainly a breach of the contract between the website and its user to have more than one person using a login.

The principle is very similar to illegal music downloading in that many may see this as a “victimless crime”, and although many websites might have hesitated in suing their clients for this kind of copyright infringement previously, times have changed.

Copyright protects the contents of websites and their text even if they are not subscription services, and anyone who uses a substantial part of them is liable for infringement. Print media is struggling to complete with online media such as FT.com, and subscriptions to the website are probably a large source of revenue for the company. As the credit crunch continues to bite, we will see more cases like this as businesses look to protect their intellectual property rights where they will prove to be one of the most valuable assets available to them.

FT probably wants to set an example here and send a message to their readership that if you want to use their service, you will need to pay for it. It’s probably only a matter of time before we see a similar case in the UK.

Will Jackson tell Landis to “Beat It”?

The video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was an iconic moment in the history of film and music, with the King of Pop teaming up with the Director of such classic films as “Animal House”, “An American Werewolf In London” and “The Blues Brothers” to create what was for a long time the most expensive music video ever made, as well as being regularly voted the best ever in surveys carried out since its release. Landis also worked with Jackson on “Black Or White”, another of his most popular videos.

Times, however, have changed. Michael Jackson is reportedly on the verge of filing for bankruptcy whilst attempting to restart his once-glittering career and John Landis has never bettered his string of 1980s classics, including “Trading Places” and “Coming To America”.

The only place they are likely to meet up in the near future will be in a Los Angeles Court, after Landis issued proceedings against Jackson for breach of contract, claiming that he has not received his agreed share of 50% of the profits generated by the “Thriller” video for the past four years.

Landis’s claim states that “the Thriller video became a worldwide megahit and an iconic pop culture phenomenon that has continued to generate profits for defendants Optimum Prods and Michael Jackson, who have wrongfully refused to pay or account for such profits” and accuses Jackson of fraudulent, malicious and oppressive conduct.”

Thriller became a phenomenon on its release, but it’s fair to say that very few people could have predicted its success, even 25 years after it was first released. Not only that, but the entertainment industry has changed beyond all recognition and I doubt that Jackson or Landis could have anticipated the money which could be made through DVD releases, Internet Downloads or via any of the other new formats which have emerged since 1983.

What John Landis did right was to set out his rights and entitlements in a contract with Michael Jackson. Many creatives from that era did not do so and saw other people make huge amounts of money of out works to which they contributed but from which they receive very little financial benefit, such as Claire Torry, who provided vocals on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon”, but only recently began to receive significant royalties for her contribution.

Not only can you be paid for the work you do on a project, but there’s a good chance that, unless you have assigned your rights, you could be entitled to a share in the Intellectual Property Rights (such as copyright) arising from the final product.

The lesson has to be that, although you may never envisage and may never want to be involved with a dispute on any project, you should always be prepared for one and always set out the terms of your relationship in writing.

Comedian doesn’t find illegal downloading funny

It’s more and more common to be warned against recording movies on camera phones by cinema chains, with Vue even going so far as to routinely search the bags of paying customers for camera equipment and the Federation Against Copyright Theft taking out huge ad campaigns to warn against watching poor-quality copies, reminding audiences that there’s nothing like seeing a film at the Cinema.

At the end of last week, a teaser trailer for “Transformers : Revenge Of The Fallen” was posted on various film websites just hours after it was released in cinemas, thanks to a video recorded on a camera phone. Needless to say, a higher quality version was posted by Paramount shortly afterwards.

But it’s not only the motion picture industry that is suffering. On February 16th, stand-up Comedian Lee Hurst pleaded guilty to an allegation of criminal damage before Guildford Magistrates Court after he grabbed a mobile phone from an audience member whom he thought was filming his routine during a performance.

Hurst’s justification? He had seen videos of his performances posted on YouTube and believed that other writers had been copying his routines. Outside court, Hurst said “we just need the same protection that is afforded to the cinema on copyright theft”.

Lee has every right to be outraged, but the situation is a little different than in the film industry.

Bootlegging of live performances has been a problem since the late 1960s, when Led Zeppelin’s Manager Peter Grant would routinely walk into record shops selling bootlegged recordings of the band’s concerts and smash them with a baseball bat. Given that recording technology is now far more advanced, these days he simply wouldn’t have time to track all of the bootleggers down.

The fact is that bootlegging takes money out of the pockets of the artist as well as anyone who is licensed to make recordings of a performance. Performers themselves have various rights under the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988 which restrain third parties from making a recording of any “performance” (works of theatre, dance, music etc.) and copying it for any other reason than personal use.

Performers also have the right to “equitable remuneration” when commercial recordings of their performances are broadcast and can pursue any third party who distributes any infringing copies.

The reason the law works this way is to ensure that artists have rights in live performances of their work, as well as any royalties they may receive from legitimate DVDs or other sales of their shows, which will always be protected by copyright.

The main reason why live performances haven’t been the focus of anti-piracy campaigns is probably because they are the main source of income for many acts through ticket sales in any event, and the problem has not been as widespread or as high-profile as in the music or film industry. Now, however, things will probably start to change as more and more clandestine recordings make their way onto the web, and more and more artists feel short-changed.

Not everyone, however, is likely to smash the mobile phone which is recording the performance in question, and we’ll most likely see camera phones banned from use at live venues.

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