The MPAA's expanding anti-piracy web
Two Hollywood studios have won a legal victory over a new type of foe in their battle against online piracy: a company that referred advertisements to sites that streamed pirated movies and television shows. But the case was resolved in a way that doesn't set a precedent that could be used against online ad networks -- like, say, Google.
U.S. District Court Judge George H. Wu signed a consent judgment Wednesday ordering Triton Media of Scottsdale, Ariz., to pay $400,000 to Warner Bros. Entertainment and Disney Enterprises. (The defendant is not to be confused with Triton Media Group of Sherman Oaks.) The judgment bars Triton from operating or assisting eight sites named in the studios' original complaint -- free-tv-video-online.info, supernovatube.com, donogo.com, watch-movies.net, watch-movies-online.tv, watch-movies-links.net, thepiratecity.org and havenvideo.com -- and any similar venture.
Lisa Stone, a vice president and senior content protection counsel for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said the case was the first time the studios had sought to hold a company liable for the infringements committed on sites to which it referred ads. Triton's services "facilitate the infringement and make it profitable," she said, adding, "It knew the types of sites it was dealing with, it drove traffic to the sites."
The case would be more noteworthy if Triton were a typical online ad network. But it isn't.
Besides, the consent judgment ended the case before any of the studios' legal theories could be put to the test by Judge Wu. In particular, there was no debate over whether Triton knew enough about and played a sufficiently significant role in the infringements facilitated by those sites to meet the legal threshold for contributory infringement. Those questions will be much more significant if the entertainment industry takes on an ad network that has an arms-length relationship with the sites it supports.
Nevertheless, Eriq Gardner at the Hollywood Reporter, who broke the news about the settlement, suggested that the Triton case will embolden the studios to go after more of the financial underpinnings of online piracy. It won't help them persuade any judges to accept their theories of liability, but it does seem to validate their follow-the-money strategy -- at least when dealing with the underbelly of the online ad industry. My guess is that the industry will focus increasingly on that strategy as piracy moves from file-sharing networks like LimeWire to online hosting services like Rapidshare, which may have an easier time qualifiying for a safe harbor against liability under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The MPAA may not win a case against a big ad network, it just has to persuade them to be more choosy about the sites they do business with.
-- Jon Healey