Hollywood steps up copyright fight

Protecting copyrights online is one of the themes of the Herring on Hollywood conference, and one start-up seeks to answer the call.

5 min read
SANTA MONICA, California--Along with all the bells, whistles, and hype, one of the themes of this year's Herring on Hollywood conference was that the entertainment industry has to be prepared to protect its copyrighted material as widespread broadband access approaches.

There was a lot of talk during programs and among networking entertainment and technology executives about copyright protection issues, especially since another theme of the conference--broadband--would make it easier for pirates to hock unlicensed products, such as full-length movies and songs, over the Net.

There are any number of opportunities now for Net users to find and download pirated materials, but slow dial-up connections make the practice prohibitive to the average user. And slow connections don't do anything to stop the proliferation of sites that sell unlicensed merchandise, for example.

One start-up, Online Monitoring Services (OMS) of Alexandria, Virginia, used the gathering to promote its copyright monitoring service to the motion picture firms that are gearing up to expand their use of the Web from merely a marketing and promotions vehicle to a potential distribution tool as broadband approaches. The firm demonstrated its service to attendees and spoke to executives yesterday about the dangers the Web presents to copyright holders.

"In 1997, U.S.-based, copyright-intensive industries made $250 billion--a quarter of $1 trillion--selling their movies, selling their books,licensing their logos and trademarks. This is what is at risk on the Web," Brandy Thomas, chairman and chief executive of OMS, told attendees during a presentation.

OMS's services, WebSentry and MarketIntelligence, use proprietary technology to scan the Web for copyrighted material. Depending on a client's concerns, OMS identifies data within the following categories: illegal e-commerce, improper use of logos or trademarks, dissemination of negative or damaging information, or association of copyrighted material with pornographic content. OMS then issues a report to the client based on the client's priorities, such as cracking down on a site selling unlicensed merchandise, for example.

During the presentation, Thomas showed screen shots of various cartoon characters in pornographic poses culled from the Web to illustrate the misuse of copyrighted works by adult sites.

"I'm pretty sure that Time Warner didn't really expect for their superheroes--and I'm pretty sure Disney didn't expect for Snow White--to be in a position like this when they first came up with it," Brandy told the chuckling audience. "This site makes money not only from subscriptions but also from advertising revenue."

He cited findings by Forrester Research that celebrity-oriented pornographic sites are expected to generate $185 million in 1998. He added that according to Cybernet Ventures, pornographic celebrity photo sites can bring in up to $80,000 per month.

"The scary part is, the problem is getting far worse before it gets better," he said.

Many in the industry and observers are concerned, however, that overzealous use of services such as that of OMS will lead to bad blood between the entertainment industry and its bread and butter: fans.

David Card, a senior analyst with Jupiter Communications, said the way to solve copyright issues is with "a combination of technologies and effective policies. Policies are what really need to be worked on.

"OMS will give you the tools to do what you need to do," he added. "But the companies then need to put policies in place and make decisions."

Thomas agreed with the assessment that company policies are needed. "This is no longer a question of legality--but rather, it's one of policy. Precedent has been set," he said, citing examples of companies recovering revenues from piracy--such as Playboy, which has won nearly $7 million this year in copyright-related lawsuits.

But firms that crack down hard on all copyright violations run a risk of alienating fans by sending formal cease-and-desist letters or otherwise threatening Net users who just want to express their devotion to a certain movie, character, actor, or other trademark.

Music fans who post full songs in MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3) format often have argued that they just want to help promote the artists. But record industry group the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and others have cracked down on such usage, saying it is up to the copyright holders and the firms that represent them to decide how to distribute and market their products.

Similarly, firms that produce movies and television shows with cult followings--such as Fox, which produces The X-Files--have faced the ire of fans when they attempted to protect their copyrights in cyberspace.

One policy for dealing with Net-savvy fans is sanctioning certain images, logos, and other material for use by fans, then distributing that material to fans who violate copyrights with an overall message to stop the infractions, Thomas said. That solution not only lets fans keep their sites up, but it also gives the entertainment firms the publicity and "buzz" they seek online.

Card agreed: "Turn a fan into an affiliate.

"I'd rather see companies do things to grow their audience rather than shrink their audience," he added, pointing to Parable, a firm that offers a technology that allows users--such as copyright holders--to animate images such as cartoon characters. The firms then can offer the multimedia items, known as "Things," so that fans can play with them or distribute them without infringing on the company's copyright.

OMS, founded in 1997, already counts among its clients the Motion Picture Association of America, the RIAA, Nielsen Media Research, and NBA.com. Earlier this month, OMS announced an alliance with music rights group ASCAP to jointly offer Net software called EZ-Seeker that tracks uses of musical works online.

Chris Young, president and chief operating officer of OMS, said the company also has two pharmaceutical firms on its client roster, though he declined to name them. He said those firms are looking to stop other companies from selling their products without permission.

Other companies offer monitoring services in varying forms, such as Net clipping service eWatch and digital watermarking firm Digimarc.

Pricing for OMS's services begins at $1,500 per month, and increases based on the amount of surveillance and the frequency with which clients want reports.