from the shoes-on-the-other-foot dept
For many years now, the MPAA and the various studios that make it up have filed various lawsuits against various internet platforms for not waving a magic wand and making piracy disappear. This also appears to be their big complaint against Google, which has bent over backwards trying to appease the industry and it’s still not enough (of course, that may be because what the industry really wants from Google is money, not stopping piracy). But now the shoe is somewhat on the other foot as Sony Pictures is being sued for failing to stop piracy. Really.
The case stems from the infamous Sony hack from a year and a half ago, where all of Sony Pictures’ emails were released onto the internet. Possibility Pictures is suing Sony claiming the hack created a breach of contract in its failure to stop piracy of its film, To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), a 2012 movie starring Kat Dennings, based on the true story of the struggles a woman went through leading to the founding of her charity (which goes by the same name as the movie). While most people focus on the emails from the hack, it should be noted that before those emails were released, the hackers released some pre-release films… including TWLOHA. And that, Possibility claims, is a breach of Sony’s contract.
Reading through the full filing, the key breach appears to be of Section 16.7 of the contract, which includes an “anti-piracy authorization” stating:
So that’s kind of amusing, since the clause is clearly designed to give Sony the power to send out threat letters and takedowns and use DRM and other such stuff — but Possibility is basically turning it around on Sony and arguing that its failure to stop piracy shows that it did not use “appropriate technical measures.” I’m not sure a court will go for this kind of judo move in flipping the anti-piracy authorization clause around to suggest that it puts certain contractual requirements on Sony Pictures, rather than simply authorizing it to do certain things as the language is clearly designed to do.
The lawsuit goes on and on about all of the great marketing plans Possibility had for the film (Justin Bieber’s mother was going to tweet about it!), but apparently that was all ruined when the hackers, whoever they were, leaked the film. It also highlights Sony’s earlier security problems, focused on the famed PSN hack, even though that’s an entirely separate subsidiary from Sony Pictures. And then it spends a lot of time pointing to reporters who pointed out that Sony Pictures’ computer security was abysmal. That’s true… but it’s not clear that’s against the law. Basically, this lawsuit is mostly “Sony incompetent” and then “because of that our contract was breached.”
Possibility then tries to show damages from the leak of the film.
The direct and proximate result of the foreseeable and avoidable Data Breach just four months prior SPWA’s planned release of the Picture was an extreme dilution of the otherwise viable market for Plaintiff’s Picture. The November 2014 Data Breach resulted in the unauthorized release of the Picture on multiple sites worldwide and destroyed the audience demand for the Picture. Following the Data Breach and worldwide pirated release of the Picture, SPWA abandoned the social marketing plans and lost all interest in promoting and marketing the Picture since it was otherwise available for free as a result of its failure to maintain adequate security of the Network. As an isolated sample of the damage caused the anticipated video-on-demand (“VOD”) revenue stream of the Picture, note that in the first six days alone following the Data Breach, the stolen Picture master was downloaded-for-free a reported 19,949 times (an average rate of over 3300 illegal, revenue-free downloads per day).
So… a few things on this. First, downloads don’t equate to lost sales, generally speaking, so the attempt to suggest that here without further evidence is pretty silly. Second, less than 20,000 downloads is… kinda weak. It certainly suggests there wasn’t much interest in the film in the first place. Third, the idea that there’s no market for a movie that’s available for free online is easily debunked by the numerous movies that do quite well at the box office and in the home video market despite also being pirated online.
However, the more interesting bit is that this puts Sony Pictures in the fairly awkward position of potentially having to argue that piracy isn’t really that damaging to a picture. I’m guessing that Sony Pictures and the MPAA want no part of that argument ever being filed in a court, because it will boomerang back to hurt them.
Either way, the filmmakers are demanding almost $9 million:
The amount of that revenue for which we seek payment, less amounts paid to date, is $8,738,331…
For a movie that not that many people seemed interested in?
Separately, Possibility notes that Sony pointed out that there’s a binding arbitration clause in their contract, and Sony has already said that if there’s a dispute it must be handled by such an arbitration setup. Possibility tries to get around this, but (unfortunately!) courts have tended to accept these binding arbitration clauses as valid.
If I had to put odds on it, I wouldn’t give this lawsuit much of a chance of surviving. The attempt to turn an anti-piracy authorization clause into some sort of requirement to block piracy is a massive stretch. The mandatory arbitration clause is also a problem. Plus, the overall lawsuit is pretty weak. The claim itself is not very well backed up. Chances are Sony can get this tossed out quickly — but it will be amusing to see if it has to argue that piracy isn’t really that damaging. That would be fun.