Screen saver: Ted Shapiro, Motion Picture Association
26 April 2010 | By Tom Phillips
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Motion Picture Association general counsel Ted Shapiro is taking a leading role in the fight against copyright pirates.
Ted Shapiro is a big deal in the movies. You might not recognise his face (although if you squint, he looks a bit like a younger, slimmer version of Tony Soprano), but as the MotionPicture Association’s (MPA) senior vice-president, general counsel and deputy managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, he is without doubt a major Hollywood player on this side of the Atlantic.
He is also upbeat, which is rare these days for someone who works in the film industry. From Hollywood to Bollywood, filmmakers are ensconced in a battle against internet piracy that threatens the livelihoods of all those involved, from the boom operators on set right through to the producers, studios and distributors. This makes Shapiro, as the legal head of the world’s largest movie trade association, a leading player in the biggest movie battle of all time.
The problem is global, complex and akin to grasping at thin air. Shapiro likens it to an internet-based car boot sale, where the police, embroiled in solving internet crimes of a more serious nature, have other priorities, leaving the MPA and the music industry isolated in their fight against anarchic websites selling, hosting and swapping copyrighted material.
“When you ask [websites] to do something about it, they give you the digital middle finger,” says Shapiro. “If you can’t get the police to help you then you’re left with civil litigation.”
A recent litigation ruling in the UK High Court could have big implications, hence Shapiro’s good mood. In Twentieth Century Film Corp vs Newzbin (2010) Mr Justice Kitchin ruled in favour of filmmakers and distributors by finding Newzbin, a subscriber website where users could download movies for free, liable for copyright infringement. The court found that the UK-based company engages in copyright infringement even though the protected content does not reside directly on its website (a critical distinction).
“It’s a very important decision because it clarifies the liability of sites such as Newzbin and sends a message to other sites,” explains Shapiro. “Now that the law has been clarified in
the UK, the courts may have the confidence to prosecute.”
The MPA is the European operation of the original Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Both represent the interests of the world’s largest film and TV studios: Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group; Sony Pictures; Paramount Pictures; 20th Century Fox; Universal Studios and Warner Bros.
The studios’ most famous internet piracy case, currently on appeal, pitted the International Federation of the Phonographic Industries and the MPAA against Pirate Bay, a Swedish filesharing site.
The court battle, which resulted in the site’s founders being arrested and fined SKr500,000 (£45,250), lit the blogospehere ablaze and was often confusingly pitched as freedom of the web vs censorship. Ironic when the MPAA was founded in the 1920s to fight censorship of movies in the US.
“The Pirate Bay case clarified across Europe that that kind of activity is illegal,” explains Shapiro. “Generally in Europe the courts are doing the right thing.”
Shapiro’s legal team - just four-strong - seems small, but it has some serious backing in the form of Hollywood’s biggest studios. Shapiro refuses to give a legal spend, but the costs of the Newzbin case are expected to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, and he admits that there are around “eight to 10” such cases ongoing across the Continent.
Brussels-based Shapiro has to pick his battles carefully. Putting the MPA’s resources into fighting the Newzbin case reflects the UK’s robust approach to internet piracy, he says. The recent passing of the Digital Economy Act was also “very heartening”.
“The fact that the UK Government and the opposition stuck to its guns in the run-up to an election shows their engagement to these issues,” says Shapiro.
One of the problems in obtaining a prosecution is explaining the technology behind the issue to a court, when often it is only the MPA’s experts and the defendants who truly understand what is going on.
Shapiro is full of praise for Kitchin J, who he says “took the time to really understand” the technology.
“If a judge is uncomfortable about how a site operates, he’ll be uncomfortable about making a judgment,” admits Shapiro. “It’s the job of the plaintiff to explain how things work.”
The industry is gradually waking up the fact that chasing the bad guys is only part of the solution, and so chooses to promote educational websites for movie fans alongside its court actions.
“The industry’s learnt a lot about how it sends a message to the viewers,” says Shapiro. “It’s now thinking rather than wagging the finger.”